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Monarch magic

September 4, 2017

Meet a virtuoso pilot, as light as a feather that follows its instincts to land in woodlands thousands of kilometers away.

Picture of a monarch butterfly
Image: LUIS ACOSTA/AFP/Getty Images

Around this time of year, as the summer wanes in the northern US and Canada, giving way to cooler air, it will soon be time for a beautiful species of orange, black and white butterfly known as the Danaus plexippus, or Monarch, to spread its wings for a journey that makes it unique not only in its Papilionidae family but in the world.

These amazing, yet tiny creatures will soon set off en mass - millions of them taking to the sky at the same time - to head south for the warmer climes of Florida and Mexico.  

Unlike any other species of butterfly, they can fly distances of up to 2,800 kilometers (1,700 miles) as they migrate away from the cold that would kill them. 

Once they reach their wintering grounds, they slip into a semi-dormant state before waking to the call of spring. Only then do they seek a mate, reproduce and die. 

But that is not the end of the story, because even after their death, they pass the incredible migration baton onto their children or grandchildren, who instinctively know how to get back to their forbears’ breeding grounds. Regardless of the fact that they have never been there before.

It’s one of those miracles of nature that has fascinated scientists since the phenomenon was first discovered. But given that the unique creatures are guided, at least in part, by environmental changes, conservationists are worried about their future.

Shifting weather patterns brought about by climate change threaten to interfere with their migration pattern. And as they congregate in forests, the species is also facing a loss of habitat as a result of deforestation.

The Monarch butterfly’s incredible journey