Migrating monarchs tagged in Virginia effort tries to unravel mystery of Mexico trip


Four monarch butterflies quietly sucked nectar from a goldenrod flower behind the Virginia Living Museum, looking natural and carefree except for what looked like price tags on their wings.

The newly emerged monarchs were gathering strength for their long fall migration to Mexico. The tags - affixed with glue to the undersides of their rear wings by a group of students at the museum - may tell us how far they get.

The fingerprint-size tags bear a code number and the address of Orley "Chip" Taylor, an entomologist at the University of Kansas. Taylor manages Monarch Watch, a program that uses tags and volunteer butterfly watchers to try to figure out how millions of monarchs born across North America each summer manage to find their winter roosts in the mountains of Mexico.

"This is one of the world's most spectacular phenomenon," Taylor said. "And we do not understand how the insect is using ZTC environmental information to move all the way to Mexico."

Monarch Watch also offers schoolchildren a hands-on way to learn about butterflies. Seven fourth- and fifth-grade boys in the Living Museum's after-school program helped museum volunteer Tede Johnson carefully glue the tags to the butterfly wings last week, then released them in the back garden.

"I think he knows where Mexico is," said 10-year-old Dabons from Newport News, Va., as a tagged monarch left his hands and disappeared over the trees.

The tags are small and light enough that they don't interfere with the butterflies' flight, said Johnson, a retired schoolteacher from upstate New York. Johnson tagged her first monarch 30 years ago.

"They used to call me the butterfly lady," she said.

The code number on the Monarch Watch tags identifies where the butterflies were released and when. If someone finds the Newport News butterflies and gets word to Taylor, he will let the Living Museum know. But the chances of someone finding the Living Museum's monarchs are slim. Of the 17,000 butterflies tagged in North America last year, only 12 were recovered in Mexico and 24 in the United States, Taylor said.

"That may not seem like a very large number," he said. "But you have to think about this in terms of the size of the continent and the fact that we're dealing with a relatively small insect."

And consider that 20 million monarch butterflies may gather on 2 or 3 acres in Mexico. "You're amazed that any tags are found at all," Taylor said.

Still, scientists have learned a little about the migration from the Monarch Watch, Taylor said. For starters, they now know that most monarchs east of the Rockies follow a route through central Texas along the edge of the old prairies, he said.

Pub Date: 11/17/96

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