12/06/04 — The flight of the butterfly

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The flight of the butterfly

By Barbara Arntsen
Published in News on December 6, 2004 2:19 PM

Monarch Butterfly

A Goldsboro butterfly has found its way to Mexico.

It was a little more than a year ago when Simonne Cato tagged several monarch butterflies in her backyard as part of a national tracking project.

Ms. Cato, director of Keep Wayne County Beautiful, was curious to see where her butterfly would end up. Recently she found out.

The yellow and black insect had gone to the El Rosario butterfly reserve in Mexico.

She said she was "absolutely surprised" to find that her butterfly had made it to the reserve, out of the 75,000 of monarchs tagged each year.

"There are less than 300 of those tagged that actually make it," she said.

Ms. Cato first heard about the Monarch Watch in an environmental education class.

"I thought it would be a neat thing to do," she said. "When I tagged them in October 2003, I thought it would be wonderful if one of mine actually made it."

After some months, Ms. Cato forgot about the tagged butterflies. But a couple of weeks ago she received a call from Mike Dunn, the director at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham.

"It was so out-of-the-blue to hear that one of my butterflies had made it," she said.

Each fall as the southward migration to Mexico occurs, the butterflies are tagged by students, teachers, scientists and anyone who wants to. The tiny tag, which is actually more like a sticker, is put under the right rear wing.

According to the Web site "Monarch Watch," monarchs west of the Rocky Mountains travel to small groves of trees along the California coast, but those east of the Rockyies usually travel to Mexico.

In all the world, no butterflies migrate like the monarchs, say scientists. They travel much farther than all other tropical butterflies, up to 3,000 miles. Their migration is similar to those of birds or whales. But unlike birds and whales, a butterfly makes the round-trip only once.

Monarch Watch says that butterflies are usually solitary, but during their migration they often cluster together at night while moving ever southward.

They can't make the journey if they linger too long because they are cold-blooded and are unable to fly in cold weather.

Fat stored in the abdomen is a critical element of their survival for the winter. It fuels their flight south and must last until the next spring when they begin the flight back north. As they migrate southward, monarchs stop for nectar and they actually gain weight during the trip. Some researchers think that monarchs conserve their "fuel" by gliding on air currents.