By Kelly Baughman
We all love the majesty of a fluttering butterfly when spring turns to summer, but Betcha Didn’t Know, the endangered Monarch butterfly depends on the Gulf Coast as an important part of its survival on its 3,000 mile yearly journey.
The Monarch’s journey usually begins in Canada or the northern region of the United States. Unable to withstand the cold weather that those areas bring, the Monarchs head south beginning in late September or early October. Like a boat equipped with the best GPS money can buy, the Monarchs instinctively know where to go…Mexico.
Monarch butterflies use the very same trees each and every year when they migrate to hibernate even though each year’s group will be an entirely different generation of butterflies. So how do they know which trees their relatives chose to hang out in last winter? Scientist don’t have an answer for this, which makes the mystery of these beautiful creatures even more alluring.
When spring makes an appearance after a long winter, the Monarchs make their way back through the Gulf Coast on their journey back home.
Unfortunately, the Monarch species is in trouble. The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service disclosed recently that since the year 1990, around a billion Monarch butterflies have vanished. The use of weed-resistant material and herbicides, is continuing to ruin and their original habitat, and may well be the main reason leading to the consistent extinction of the Monarchs. The use of such harmful chemicals led to the destruction of milkweed plants, the only plant on which the Monarch caterpillars feed on.
The Gulf Coast is an important part of the epic journey for the Monarchs due to our abundance of milkweed. Monarchs at the Pascagoula River Audubon Center are also part of a continent-wide citizen science project where they are captured, identified as male or female, and tagged with a small sticker. The tag contains information about the MonarchWatch project and a 6-digit code unique to that particular butterfly.
Tagged monarchs that are collected or recaptured anywhere along their migration route provide critical information about the population. Tags don’t harm the monarchs nor impede their flight, they simply provide a way to mark each butterfly. Unlike many other butterflies, monarch wings are not covered with powdery scales, and so handling them gently during the tagging process does not cause harm.
Unfortunately, this ground-breaking research has shown that the monarch populations on the Gulf Coast have significantly diminished over the last ten years. Local scientist and butterfly sanctuary volunteer, Jessica Danfield, said she believes the reason to be human interference. “The progress of construction and the use of pesticides and weed killers is quite simply eliminating this beautiful creature from existence. The removal of the pivotal milkweed plant is the culprit,” she said.
Danfield said that while she realizes that many see milkweed as a nuisance, it is important to understand the effects its removal has on such a delicate ecosystem. “Monarch caterpillars each require up to 20-25 milkweed leaves and blossoms during their short larval stage, so milkweed is critical! It’s also helpful to plant a variety of spring and fall blooming flowers for the adult monarchs to use for fuel during migration. Without these things on the Gulf Coast, we will absolutely continue to see the decline of the Monarchs around the world.”
Here’s some cool facts about the most beautiful annual visitors we have on the Gulf Coast:
They fly at speeds ranging between 12 to 25 miles an hour.
They have a 10 cm wingspan and weigh between 0.25 to 0.75 grams.
The wings flap slower than other butterflies at about 300 to 720 times a minute.
The monarch butterfly does not have lungs; breathing takes place through tiny vents in the thorax or abdomen called spiracles, and an organized arrangement of tubes called trachea, distribute the oxygen through the Monarch’s body system.
No single butterfly lives to complete the entire migration cycle. In fact, it takes four generations of butterflies to complete the one year journey.
If you would like to do something to support monarch populations anywhere along their migration route, plant milkweed and allow it to bloom and grow in yards, gardens, parks, schools, cemeteries, and public green spaces. Try to avoid hitting them when driving, and if you see one fluttering about in your yard, give it the space it needs to feed and lay eggs.
So while you may not like having weeds in your yard, Betcha Didn’t Know… leaving it to grow can help save this massive movement of butterflies that has been called “one of the most spectacular natural phenomena in the world”.