Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Magnificent Monarch Butterfly

Here I go again - another installment of my 2011 butterfly series (also see my posts on the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail and Variegated Fritillary).

Today, it's my photos and new-found knowledge of the Monarch Butterfly - hope you enjoy :)

About the Monarch Butterfly

With an easily recognizable black and orange wing pattern (3.5-4" wingspan), the monarch butterfly is perhaps the most well known of all North American butterflies.

Though they feed on a variety of nectar plants, milkweed is the plant of choice for monarch butterflies.

In fact, adult females lay their eggs on the underside of milkweed leaves (which hatch in 3-12 days) and after birth, milkweed becomes the exclusive diet of the monarch caterpillars.
A butterfly of distinction

What makes the monarch butterfly distinct is that - similar to birds - it's the only butterfly to make lengthy migrations north & south annually.

But, unlike birds, NO ONE monarch butterfly makes the complete trip. It takes 3 to 4 generations to complete the journey cycle.

The first three generations live just 2 to 6 weeks each while making the trek northward. The last generation lives up to nine months, and are responsible for re-migrating to the same spot every year - south to Mexico, Texas or parts of Florida.
Adapted from original Wikipedia Commons photo by authors Harald Süpfle & Wiz9999
The great unknown

The big mystery to scientists is how the species returns to the SAME spots each Fall (to overwinter).

It is believed that the flight patterns of monarch butterflies are either inherited, or the butterflies use other natural forms of navigation, such as the positioning of the sun.

Top image is Monarch Butterfly in Caterpillar stage. Bottom two images are closeups of butterfly torso area.
Love of flight

While monarch butterflies travel extraordinary lengths - up to 3,000 miles to overwinter, they have also utilized their strong flying skills to fly elsewhere.

In fact, they are one of the few insects capable of crossing the Atlantic ocean.

In Bermuda, for example, they are becoming increasingly common as humans are more and more growing milkweed as an ornamental plant in their flower gardens.

If wind conditions are just right, some years find the monarch butterflies as far away as Great Britain.
These beautiful butterflies are extremely common and far from endangered.

Staying alive

Unlike many other butterflies, the monarch butterfly is toxic (due to its milkweed diet) and distasteful to birds and other mammals - helping preserve survival of the species.

It's believed that the bright colors of both the caterpillar and the adult's wings serve as natural warning colors to predators.
Final words

Like all insects the Monarch has six legs, however it uses only four of its legs as it carries its two front legs against its body.

Adult males will frequently gather in and around damp soil or wet gravel in an activity called 'mud-puddling.'


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