Monarch butterflies engage in a spectacular multi-generation migration. They surf the green wave of spring as it spreads north and produces new generations along the way. Then, as autumn sets in, it releases the generation of butterflies down reproduction and begins south and eventually reaches its place of gain in dizzying numbers. But in recent years, these figures have grown considerably less staggering. The loss of some of these wintering areas, food destruction across North America and other threats has steadily reduced the migratory population to the point where it is considered for endangered species designation.
The declining population has inspired people throughout North America to try to give the butterflies a hand. Their efforts are to plant more of the insect's favorite milk plants, to protect the butterflies in their pupil stage and even to order monarchs from commercial suppliers. Raising monarchs is also a common school project.
But a new study raises questions about whether buying pops really helps the butterflies. A group of researchers at the University of Chicago have found that the monarchs purchased from commercial suppliers may not be able to migrate effectively and so can only give the monarch population a transient increase.
Migrant monarch populations undergo both behavioral and physiological changes as autumn rolls around. Their reproductive system is limited, and the women will transport fewer unfertilized eggs in the fall. In addition, when placed outside, the animals will generally be directed to the south, the direction of their ongoing migration. So the question of the researchers' minds was whether the offspring of monarchs that emerged in captivity by suppliers would show the same behaviors.
To find the answer, the researchers got monarchs from a commercial breeder and caught others in the wild. Both were raised in an outdoor environment so that they could retrieve some seasonal indications of whether they would migrate. In the summer, the women carried lots of eggs and the population did not appear to be any preference orientation when they were in one (I do not make up for it) "the monarch flight simulator." In the autumn, however, the butterflies in nature showed reduced reproduction capacity and a strong tendency to target the south. None of these were true for butterflies obtained from commercial suppliers.
This may indicate that long-term birth had chosen to be able to migrate in the commercial population. But there is an alternative. From their winter base in Mexico, monarchs have spread to the Caribbean, South America and into the Pacific Ocean, reaching as far as Australia. None of these additional populations undergoes the type of migratory behavior seen in the North American population. So there is a chance that the commercial populations were simply the source of a non-migrating population.
To find out the researchers turned to the genetics. Previously, these have shown that the three non-migratory populations were independently derived from North American monarchs. When the researchers conducted a similar analysis, the results suggested that the indigenous population was a distinct branch effectively a fourth non-migrant family.
Although it is tempting to attribute the differences between populations entirely to genetics, the researchers found an additional complication. When they took some popping up to raise a few days, they found that even this short time indoors could interfere with the ability of the remote to target the south, even when they were raised in containers that mimicked the temperature and illumination of the fall. Only a few monarchs were tested in this way, so the researchers are reluctant to draw any strong conclusions about it.
There are many potential consequences here for efforts to help restore the species, as this is not the case where any commercial butterfly is a problem. For one, butterflies obtained from another commercial supplier have been found in the winter's grounds in Mexico, suggesting that at least some of them may migrate. In addition, the researchers found that migratory behavior returned after just two generations. So, butterflies obtained early enough during the year can help expand the migrating population.
Even then, the authors claim that monarchs sold to schools do much to create awareness of the species' problems and they built support for other, possibly more effective conservation measures.
Separately, it is a question of raising monarchs indoors. "Summer time hobbyists raise monarchs in their homes during the summer and fall and then release them," the authors note, "hope they or their offspring fly south to Mexico." If the limited results on indoor elevation are on, the autumn releases may be counterproductive.
In addition to the conservation aspects, the work adds another complexity layer to the migration process. The behaviors involved in migration are complex enough. now we know that the decision whether to migrate or not also involves a mixture of environmental code and genetic influences.