For the iconic monarch butterfly, the shorter days in fall mean it’s time to pack up and head south to a warmer climate! Just like clockwork, the Eastern population of monarch butterflies makes a 2000 mile journey to their winter paradise roosts in central Mexico. The journey in itself is one of the greatest migrations among all animals.
But here’s the catch: none of these butterflies has made this trip before. Several generations of monarchs have come and gone over the course of a summer, but the generation born in late August and early September are genetically prepared for months of survival without feeding or breeding. But their predecessors didn’t exactly leave them with a map. How do they know where to go? Do they have a map and compass inside their heads? The answer: yes! Well, sort of…
Think about this: if you were lost in the woods and needed to find south, what would you do? Here’s a hint: look up! The sun can be a great resource when you’re lost, and I’m not talking about just asking it for directions. As the Earth rotates on its axis throughout the day, the sun appears to travel overhead. By knowing approximately what time of day it is, you can determine the cardinal directions. Monarchs use specialized cells or organs called photoreceptors that respond to light to establish the position of the sun.
|Representation of time compensated sun compass orientation used by monarchs; |
Image created by Anna Schneider.
|Diagram of features on the head of a monarch butterfly; Image created by Anna Schneider.|
Many of the mechanisms behind the migration of these incredible creatures are yet to be discovered, but much progress has been made in the past decade. So next time you see a monarch butterfly, take a second look. There is more than meets the eye.
Gegear, R., Foley, L., Casselman, A., & Reppert, S. (2010). Animal cryptochromes mediate magnetoreception by an unconventional photochemical mechanism Nature, 463 (7282), 804-807 DOI: 10.1038/nature08719
Guerra, P., Gegear, R., & Reppert, S. (2014). A magnetic compass aids monarch butterfly migration Nature Communications, 5 DOI: 10.1038/ncomms5164
Merlin, C., Gegear, R., & Reppert, S. (2009). Antennal Circadian Clocks Coordinate Sun Compass Orientation in Migratory Monarch Butterflies Science, 325 (5948), 1700-1704 DOI: 10.1126/science.1176221
Steven M. Reppert. The Reppert Lab: Migration. University of Massachusetts Medical School: Department of Neurobiology.