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The King of Butterflies and His Royal Family


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Meaning of the Monarch Butterfly’s Names

The word “monarch” comes from the Greek words for “one ruler.” A human monarch is a king or queen who rules alone, without necessarily having to consult any other person—though good ones have always surrounded themselves with people who could give them good advice. When human monarchs were selected (rather than simply inheriting their positions) they were usually chosen as being the strongest, smartest, and toughest people in their group. Some monarch butterflies are able to fly for a migration of 2500 miles. Most of them can find their ways to their ancestors’ winter homes when they go there, and then find their ways back to the places they left in spring. This ability made them seem like the strongest, smartest, and toughest of all butterflies. In much of their range they are also the biggest butterflies, with wingspans up to four inches (10cm). The monarch was the King of Butterflies in the same sense that the lion was the King of Beasts.

The scientific name for monarch butterflies is Danaus plexippus. Credit for this name goes to Carolus Linnaeus, who invented our modern system for scientific names. The names he used often came from names other scientists had used. The reasons why they chose the names they did were not usually explained and can be hard to guess. The first species described were often named after people in ancient Greek and Roman literature. Danaus and Plexippus were the names of two legendary kings in ancient Greece.

Two other tidbits of trivia may have influenced the naming of this species. During the time when American wildlife was beginning to be studied, and Carolus Linnaeus was working out his taxonomic systems, one of the kings of England was called William of Orange. In addition to King Danaus, another character in Greek literature was Danae, who received a gift of gold coins.

The most common names for this species in Spanish (mariposa monarca) and French (papillon monarque) are similar to its most common name in English.

Another name that has sometimes been used for this species is “Milkweed Butterfly,” because the young butterflies eat milkweed leaves and the adults drink milkweed nectar. (Milkweed has white, milky-looking sap.)

Because of its long travels and wide distribution, this butterfly is also sometimes called “The Wanderer.” Most monarch butterflies normally live in North America, but storm winds have blown them across the oceans to other continents. They are often found in Australia and southeastern Asia, and sometimes in Africa, Britain, and Europe.

Because of its color, this species has sometimes been called “Black-Veined Brown” or “Common Tiger.”

Other Monarchs and Look-Alikes

Other species in the genus Danaus are called Tigers, Wanderers, or Monarchs, and D. gilippus, which is found in the central States, is usually called the Queen. Some of these butterflies migrate, but not nearly so far as D. plexippus does. The South American Monarchs look almost exactly like their North American cousins, but have a distinct, incompatible genetic pattern. The Jamaican Monarchs have orange wings with slightly darker, rather than black, wing veins. The species sometimes called African Monarchs have less conspicuous dark veins than the American species, and the species called Indian Monarchs have more conspicuous black veins. The Queens’ wings are usually a duller, browner shade of orange overall, with less noticeable dark veins.

Most butterflies in this genus are orange, black, and white. Some are mostly black. On the Hawaiian island of Oahu about one out of ten monarch butterflies is mostly white, with black veins and patches where other monarchs have them, but white where other monarchs have orange markings. These “White Monarchs” differ from other monarchs only in color.

Monarchs are not closely related to the Tiger Swallowtails, another group of large butterflies whose wings are usually black and lemon-yellow, rather than black and orange-brown. Monarch and Swallowtail caterpillars, like the butterflies, are never confused by people who see them often, but easily confused by people who read descriptions of them. A few Swallowtail species are even bigger than the Monarchs.Most are smaller, and their “tiger” striping does not follow their wing veins (and thus looks more like a tiger’s stripes).

Monarchs are most easily confused with a smaller butterfly in the Admiral group called Limenitis archippus, the Viceroy. While flying, Monarchs and Viceroys look very similar. Both are distasteful (even mildly poisonous) to birds that eat them; each absorbs different toxins from the plants on which they feed. When they are at rest and can be clearly seen, Viceroys have different patterns of wing venation as well as being smaller than Monarchs. Nevertheless they clearly get some survival benefit from their resemblance to the Monarch group; in places where Queen butterflies are common, Viceroys tend to look more like Queens, and in places where only Monarchs are common, Viceroys look like Monarchs.

See how similar this butterfly looks to a Monarch? There are several similar look-alikes

Monarchs’ Lives

Monarch butterflies are still quite common, although their numbers have declined recently. They are a “species of special concern” to many Americans whether their populations are threatened or not.

Most individual butterflies fly for only a few weeks. Monarch butterflies are less exceptional than people used to think; they typically go through four generations in one year. Only one of these generational groups has to migrate and hibernate (and some tropical populations don’t migrate). The others live fast, as typical butterflies do. They develop through four distinct shapes, with a total of eight distinct outer surfaces. They typically spend three to eight days gestating inside eggs, three to five days in each of five larval instars (caterpillar skins), a week or two resting and reshaping inside the chrysalis (the pupal phase), and five to seven weeks flying about as adult butterflies. Despite some overlap among generations, the butterflies have no noticeable social instincts and show no recognition of their offspring, if they ever do see them.

Compared with other butterflies Monarchs tend to fly slowly, at a pace some people compare to “jogging” or “sailing.” In a quiet place you can hear each flap of their relatively big, solid wings.

Though unable to move in cold air and helpless against gusts of wind, Monarchs show a definite sense of purpose. Usually it’s easy to tell where a Monarch is going. They fly from one flower to another, fly to a branch to rest, or fly to a puddle to sip water. Females fly from one milkweed plant to another, doing their best to give each egg a separate food plant. (A typical female Monarch lays about a thousand eggs, and if she can find a thousand milkweed plants she may place each egg on a different plant.) Males chase and play-fight with females, sometimes even knocking them to the ground; adult Monarchs’ fights never seem to do any of them any real harm.

Most monarch butterflies never migrate. Those who do migrate are not infallibly guided to their families’ home territories, as some writers have suggested. They can be blown off course and spend winters in places other than the ones that seem to have been their goals. Barbara Kingsolver’s science fiction novel, Flight Behavior, reflected the fact that monarchs who were probably heading for Mexico have spent whole winters as far north as Virginia Beach. Nevertheless, close observation has shown that many monarch butterflies find their way, not only to the same place where their great-grandparents hibernated, but to the same individual tree.

Migration is very strenuous for the butterflies who do it. Individuals who have hibernated all winter look thin and tired, and produce fewer and smaller eggs than those who have not hibernated. During the winter, while they rest and conserve their energy, the biochemicals that make them indigestible begin to break down, and some are eaten by mice and birds. Not all hibernating butterflies are able to fly back to their homes in spring; some die during the winter or before flying north in spring. Migration thins local Monarch populations every year. During the summer populations become denser, then thin out again in the winter.

Threats to this abundant and popular butterfly species come from habitat loss, food plant destruction, heavy use of insecticide sprays and “germ warfare” against caterpillars, and an invasive nuisance plant that the caterpillars don’t recognize as non-food for them. Bioengineered corn and soybeans should theoretically have had no effect on Monarch populations, since they don’t eat corn or soybeans...but heavy use of chemical pesticides, and destruction of the Monarchs’ own place in the environment, have significantly reduced populations in some areas.


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