Although Monarch butterflies may well qualify as one of the most beautiful and majestic of butterflies on the planet today, entomologists, students and enthusiasts diligently persist with their studies to bring out several more interesting facts about them to the world. Here are some of those interesting data.
Habitat and Species
Among the two species of Monarch butterflies, the one in North America differs from the one you will find in South America, but the Caribbean is home to both species. You can also see them in Australia, New Zealand, and several Islands lying between Australia and Tahiti, in parts of Europe and in Hawaii.
• The Monarch butterflies go through prolonged stages of metamorphoses, starting with its larva or caterpillar, shedding or molting its skin an amazing five times before the pupa stage You can see a diagram of the monarch life cycle that you can color in here.
• The caterpillar may eat its shed skin in four of its five molts in the stages referred to as “instar”
• In the fifth instar, 10 to 12 hours before shedding its skin for the fifth and last time, the Monarch caterpillar spins a silk for it to hang. After some initial wriggling the pupa skin hardens into a protective covering for the evolving monarch butterfly inside it.
• Depending on the temperatures in summer, the caterpillar stage continues for 9 to 14 days
• The caterpillar is a voracious eater, capable of consuming an entire milkweed leaf in less than five minutes. They gain about 2700 times their original weight, and in the process, excrete an abundant quantity of “frass” (or waste).
• 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
• 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
• Senses of smell and vision help the Monarch butterflies to assess its environment
• They have a broad spectrum perception of colors and can see even the UV light that humans cannot
• Their process of communication uses colors and scents. Chemical discharged from the rear wing glands help the males to attract its mate
• The Monarch butterfly can cumulatively lay about a maximum of 250 eggs per day at the rate of one egg at a time. The witnessed highest number of eggs laid by a monarch butterfly in captivity is 1179
• These butterflies use their eyes to locate flowers, they use their antennas to smell the nectar and the minute receptors lodged in their feet called “tarsi” come in handy to taste sweet substances
• Adult monarchs feed on nectar and water by sipping on it using a sucking tube called proboscis that lies coiled under the head when not in use
• Monarch butterflies store a poison called Cardiac Glycosides that they had ingested by feeding on the leaves of the milkweed foliage in their larva stage. These are sometimes harmful to its vertebrate predators, but ineffective on invertebrate predators. The toxic effect on vertebrates however, depends on the level of intake. These toxins provide these butterflies with a poisonous defense against its predators such as lizards, birds, and frogs.
The Butterfly Life Cycle
It is really strange that the four generations of these butterflies are constituted by 4 separate butterflies that complete the 4 unique phases in just one year. After this, they restart the same cycle, commencing with the primary stage of the first generation.
February & March: Locate a mate and search for an ideal place to lay their eggs
March-April: They lay their eggs on the leaves of milkweed plants. The larvae eat, grow and metamorphose into a chrysalis.
May-June: The third generation butterflies live out a life-cycle like the first generation. They then perish in about fifteen to fifty days after metamorphosing into spectacular adult monarch butterflies.
This generation repeats the processes the other three generations of Monarch butterflies underwent, but with the one crucial difference of traveling (migrating) to California through Mexico to enjoy the warmer climate there. They live for six to eight months until they again get ready to undertake the return migration.
Note: In effect, the fourth generation of the Monarch butterflies are the only ones that migrate, as, sadly, the butterflies of the first three generations hardly survive beyond 6 weeks of emerging from their pupas.
• How these butterflies take a particular direction for migration is an unsolved mystery of our generation. Maybe one can attribute it to instinct or programming?
• They fly at speeds ranging between 12 to 25 miles an hour.
• Similar to the migrating birds, the monarch butterflies use the clear advantage of updrafts of warm air, called “thermals" and glide as they migrate, to preserve the energy required for flapping their wings all the through the long 2500 mile voyage from the Great Lakes in Canada to the warm Central Mexican Oyamel fir forests in the Michoacan hills. They rest there through winter and then complete their migration Northwards in search of milkweed plants in the Eastern United States.
• At the wintering sites in Mexico, they roost in the millions in huge groups in the trees. The females will lay their eggs on the milkweed leaves, and the cycle goes on until the next fourth generation starts the return migration to complete the cycle north in the spring.
• ICUN has accorded a “threatened phenomenon” status for the monarch butterfly migration
• The Mexican authorities, In 1986, converted 62 square miles of forests in the Sierra Madres to the now renowned Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, home to hundreds of millions of Monarch butterflies during winter. The government further extended the reserve area to an area of 217 acres in the year 2000.
• Local well meaning organizations who share a love for the Monarchs are sparing no efforts to extend all help to the government in this wonderful conservation effort.
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