Oct 18, 2018 | Updated: 04:34 PM EDT

What Is It? An International Journey for the Monarch Migration

Sep 16, 2014 04:35 AM EDT

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Certainly when you think of a butterfly, you think of lofty wings and graceful fluttering. But reality is far from expectations when we think of patterned wonders.

Taking an extremely close look, courtesy of a scanning electron micrograph, we reveal that the beautiful, winged insects don't take flight with feathers or fur, but rather their wings are entirely made of scales. Tiny and intricately overlapped, in varying shades of orange and black, butterfly species like the majestic Monarch Butterfly are unique creatures with a lot of complexity hidden in their evolutionary origins.

Ever wonder why Monarchs have those distinct orange and black patterns, that are so recognizable at first sight? It's a little warning injected into their genetic history, as both the caterpillar and butterfly reveal to predators that they are "aposematic", more simply described as poisonous. Due to the fact that Monarchs spend their larval stage feasting on poisonous milkweed, they take on a poisonous defense mechanism that can cause fatal cardiac arrest if consumed by predators.

Far more complex than their small bodies lead on, Monarchs belong to two very rare forms of organisms: those that metamorphose and those that are migratory.

Metamorphosis is a key aspect of the Monarch's life cycles as they develop from larvae to caterpillars, ultimately ending in their mature butterfly form after going through a two week transformation within its chrysalis. A true wonder of nature's beauty, these butterflies are well-researched as model organisms, however, consistently reveal new discoveries of their vast complexities.

As a migratory species, Monarchs have earned their greatest fame. And the flying season is at its start.

When the summer ends, and autumn brings with it cooler temperatures and shorter days, Monarch Butterflies cease their mating season and begin to prepare for the long journey ahead. Flying a nearly 2,000 mile long flightpath, that is made of five flyway patterns spanning from the Rocky Mountains and southern Canada all the way to the Oyamel Fir forest in central Mexico.

"It's where their ancestors came from" director of conservation program "Back to the Wild", Mona Rutger says. "They just inherently know how to get there. It's quite amazing."

For a species of butterfly whose predominant number of generations only live 2-6 weeks while mating, the generations coming to maturity in early autumn are an oddity. These Monarchs that are entrusted with making the eight-month long journey to the warmer climate in Mexico live far longer as they redirect all their energy towards the long flight.

But the trek has become far rarer as over the past 20 years, as Monarch Butterfly populations have dwindled by more than 90%. Looking to learn as much as possible for conservation efforts, local researchers have tagged Monarchs born in their respective areas and track their journey from the US and Canada all the way home to Mexico. Though the species has continued to face threats from several human interactions, international efforts between the United States, Canada and Mexico are underway to protect the important Oyamel Fir Forests, to the point of including armed guards to prevent logging from disturbing the species.

"Butterfly population decline is an important indicator of ecosystem health" Assemblyman Timoth Eustace says. "Drastic reductions in certain species of bee and bat populations have demonstrated there are unforeseen consequences to a single species' decline, and current legislation lends a helping hand to Monarchs."

Four generations after the flight to Mexico, the marigold and black wonders will return early Spring 2015, hopefully in even larger numbers than they left.

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