of the Monarchs
Vanity Fair, November 1999
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afternoon at the end of last August a monarch butterfly, a robust, freshly
hatched male who had been cruising around for a few days in a meadow in
southern Manitoba, taking nectar from asters and goldenrods, abruptly decamped
and started to make his way south in a frenzy of flapping. He was following
a migratory urge and a specific flight plan that have been inscribed in
the genes of monarchs since well before the appearance of the first humans.
Soon he met up with others of his kind: large, striking butterflies, their
luminous, blood-orange wings scored with black veins and bordered with
two rows of white spots.
The monarch is at once the most familiar and the most mysterious of insects. There is scarcely a backyard in America through which one has not coasted at sometime or another, scarcely a schoolchild who does not know about its metamorphosis inside a jewel-like, jade-green chrysalis, studded with gold spots, from a candy-striped, black-white-and-yellow caterpillar to an adult butterfly.
The monarch was named in the 17th century for King William Orange. The early colonists called it King Billy. It has had many names through the years, among them the milkweed butterfly, the wanderer, and the storm king. It goes by the official name of Danaus plexippus and is placed by most taxonomists in the subfamily Danainae of the family Nymphalidae of the order Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths).
By the end of summer there may be hundreds of millions of monarchs east of the Rockies, spread out over 155,000 square miles. Each year, as the days shorten, this eastern population performs one of the most spectacular migrations in nature, no less epic than the flight of the passenger pigeons that, before becoming extinct in 1914, blackened the sky over Philadelphia as they began heading north in the spring.
Our Manitoba butterfly joins a little swirling knot of southbound monarchs, and like a river, picking up innumerable tributaries along the way, the knot con verges with swarms and bevies, shimmering lines of translucent orange wings that take an hour to pass, billowing into scintillating clouds of tens of thousands of monarchs wafting up on thermals to 3,000 feet above the ground (scientists have tailed them that high in ultralight airplanes), sailing over cities and mountain ranges, riding 50-knot tailwinds, descending to only a few feet above the ground when there is a strong head wind or the air is too heavy with moisture. Each of them weighs little more than a fiftieth of an ounce, and although their bodies are bloated with lipids, fats they have been storing to live off for the next six months, their wings are no thicker than maple leaves. Some are blown way off course out to the Atlantic, some are pelted down by hail and drown in the Great Lakes. Many drift across highways and are slammed by the ~indshields of cars. But millions manage to skirt the perils, to thread a landscape that human alterations are turning increasingly into a minefield for animals on the move, and miraculously keeping their bearings they fall out of the sky at dusk to bivouac en masse in the same stands of trees year after year.
As early as 1885 a Pennsylvania naturalist, John Hamilton, described a monumental "pit stop" (as some monarch scientists call the phenomenon) in Brigantine, New Jersey, as "almost past belief. ..millions is but feebly expressive. ..miles of them is no exaggeration." He estimated that the entire aggregation was two and a half miles long by 400 yards wide. In the 1930s, in nearby Cape May, the famed ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson reported such a huge landing that the trees seemed "more orange than green." One morning in the spring of 1986 my friend Nicasio Romero, a sculptor and Chicano water-rights activist who lives on the Pecos River in northern New Mexico, opened his door to find that his entire six-acre spread was solid with monarchs; he couldn't step outside without crushing some. Romero was marooned until the butterflies resumed their journey the following afternoon.
Traveling in fits and starts up to 200 miles a day in September and October, the butterflies move diagonally southwest on a broad front across the Gulf States. Some break off and head down the Florida peninsula, or cross the Caribbean to the Yucatan peninsula, and then continue to parts unknown, possibly Guatemala, Honduras, or Costa Rica. But the main waves stream through the Hill Country of Texas and funnel down to the Rio Grande. What happens to them after that remained one of the great unsolved mysteries in the natural sciences as the last quarter of the 20th century began.
By 1972, Dr. Fred A. Urquhart, a zoologist at the University of Toronto's Scarborough College, was getting close. Having devoted 35 years to the question of where the eastern U.S. population went each fall, Urquhart was the grand old man of monarch research. Fascinated with lepidopterology since he was five, he had started catching large, charismatic moths-lunas, cecropias, and Polyphemuses-fluttering around the streetlights in his hometown of Toronto. In the late 1930s he began tracking the monarchs and experimenting with tagging them to follow their movements. In 1945 he married Norah Patterson, who was no lepidopterist but who became equally consumed by the quest. Carlos Gottfried, a Mexican collaborator of Urquhart's who would organize Mexico City Boy Scouts to tag monarchs for him in the 1980s, described the Canadian scientist, now 87 and retired in Toronto, as "low-key, a real gentleman. He and Norah are like your midwestern grandparents."
By 1952 the Urquharts had developed an "alar tag," as they called it, that could be glued to the leading edge of a monarch's forewing and would not falloff or impede its flight. That same year they founded the Insect Migration Association, and over the next 24 years they and an army of thousands of volunteers tagged hundreds of thousands of monarchs in Canada, the United States, Central America, the Caribbean, and even as far away as Australia and New Zealand. Gottfried, now 49, said the volunteers he talked to were "very peculiar. People who didn't have anything to do with their lives, and suddenly they had a purpose: tagging monarchs for Dr. Urquhart." Single women predominated, it seemed, and many became passionately devoted to the tall, darkly handsome professor and his inspiring cause.