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Monarch Butterflies Can Fly Thousands Of Miles Without A Compass



Any picture of an idyllic British summer will normally include a charming colourful butterfly. These pretty and silent insects flutter what appears to often be aimlessly across the grass, clinging onto warm walls and other surfaces and opening and closing their gorgeous wings gently in the sunshine.

We are lucky here in the UK with a number of beautiful butterflies appearing most summers, from the fairly plain small whites to the highly decorative painted ladies.

An increasingly rare migrant to the British Isles however is the Monarch butterfly. It is a large butterfly, and is far more common in Canada and North America.

Its big claim to fame, apart from being very attractive, is its long migration and navigational skills. The Monarch is famous for its winter migrations from as far north as Canada down to very specific sites in Mexico, the west coast of California and in Florida, a journey of thousands of miles.

For years a team of researchers at the University of Massachusetts Medical School have been studying Monarch butterflies and trying to work out how they make the journey. It was already found that Monarchs can calculate the position of the sun via light sensitive molecules in their antennae. By combining this with an inbuilt biological clock, the butterflies managed to create a sort of time adjusted sun compass.

But the puzzle was that even on very cloudy days Monarchs continue to flutter relentlessly on their long path southwards towards the equator.

As part of their latest ongoing study, the team popped a large group of Monarch butterflies into a flight simulator allowing them to flutter around at will. Then they surrounded the flight simulator with a magnetic coil system and set it so that south was in one direction. The butterflies all turned to the south. They then changed the position of south and the butterflies responded accordingly and all turned towards the new south. This was repeated several times with the same results.

Professor Reppert, who led the team, said that he thought this was the first ever demonstration to show how migratory insects incline towards magnetic directions.

An interesting aspect was that as part of the experiment the team found that the butterflies only fully responded when they were also exposed to ultraviolet A/blue range light.

There is still work to do but the secrets of the Monarch’s migration skills are becoming clearer.

The team along with many conservationists believe finding out exactly why and how the Monarchs find their way is vital to their survival as numbers are steadily decreasing.

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