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Solved navigation mystery could help Canada’s resident butterfly

posted April 22, 2016


While no stranger to almost every continent around the globe, the monarch butterfly has a particular affinity with Canada, being one of its most recognisable species. In fact, seeing this spectacularly colourful insect – along with a host of rare and beautiful creatures – remains an attractive prospect for wildlife lovers when booking their Canadian holidays.

The species’ yearly migratory route from Canada in winter to the warmer climes of Mexico is a remarkable natural phenomena, and the monarch butterfly’s migration distance is the greatest of any insect known to the world.

The species is under threat, however, and population numbers are dwindling. Their seasonal home in Mexico is increasingly being selected for logging sites and the milkweed vegetation on their migration route across Midwestern USA is receding.

Habitation loss and its impact on the monarch has long been on the minds of these three countries. Canada, welcoming the largest numbers of the monarch in the summer months, has expressed its concern, with the Canadian Government listing the butterfly on its Species at Risk Public Registry in 2008. The United States, Canada and Mexico have committed to working together to protect the threatened insect.

Migration Mystery solved

Now the mystery of its great migration has been unlocked, identifying how the insect makes navigational decisions as it travels across the world.

Under the lead research of Professor Eli Shlizerman, scientists at the University of Washington have discovered how the “internal compass” of the monarch is used to determine the flight path as they migrate every autumn from north to south.

The study’s findings on the monarch’s neural integration have been published recently in the scientific journal Cell Reports, explaining how the butterflies process information to make decisions about navigation and locate sources of food.

Professor Shlizerman explains: “Their compass integrates two pieces of information – the time of day and the sun’s position on the horizon – to find the southerly direction.

“We created a model that incorporated this information – how the antennae and eyes send this information to the brain.

“We can take these concepts to produce robotic versions of these systems – something that is powered by and that navigates by the Sun. It’s a very interesting application that could follow the butterflies and even help maintain them.

“Their numbers are decreasing, so we want to keep this insect – the only one that migrates these huge distances – with us for many years.”

It’s thought that this new information will contribute to understanding the monarch’s annual journey from Canada to Mexico, allowing scientists to analyse the preferred habitats of this threatened species.

Monarch butterfly migration

Point Pelee National Park

Preservation is already underway in Canada. At Point Pelee National Park, near Leamington in the Ontario province, conservationists are working to restore habitats to suit the monarch butterflies.

The area has become a significant site for the butterflies, which make Point Pelee National Park their home in the spring and autumn on their migration route. The marshy grassland at Point Pelee has proved ideal for feeding and breeding, and now staff are planting milkweed and nectar-producing plant life to provide a stable habitat for years to come.

If you’re hoping to see the monarch butterflies in all their vibrant orange glory this year, Point Pelee is open from 6am until 10pm and provides 20 square kilometres of fantastic landscape to explore. Aside from butterflies, the park also boasts a myriad of birds and insects, as well as Carolinian forest and marshland vegetation, making it a superb spot for wildlife watching.

Enjoy the park and do your bit for the butterflies! You can share your observations of the monarchs with the organisation Monarch Watch to help them keep an eye on this species in Canada.

Point Pelee National Park in Canada

 

Image Credit: Jamie (flickr.com)

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