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Butterfly watch: multi-generational migrations

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Migrating animals are always impressive to watch. The ability to cover huge areas of land in massive groups can be a beneficial strategy for many animals; whether birds, mammals or shoals of fish. Yet even more impressive than migrations by groups of individuals are those that take place over several generations. In the case of the Painted Lady butterfly a 9000-mile round trip, from the tropics of Africa to the Arctic circle, takes place over six generations. Each butterfly is following the migration path, not of its parents, but of its great-great-great-great-grandparents.

The Painted Lady butterfly, Vanessa cardui. Picture taken in Ename, Belgium by Tim Bekaert (July 12, 2005).

Until fairly recently, it wasn’t known exactly how these butterflies migrated. They appeared in the UK around spring-time and then promptly vanished in the autumn. In order to track them a project was set up in 2009, involving systematic surveys, observation through citizen science projects, and the use of high altitude insect-monitoring radars.

What they found was that when the Painted Lady migrated back down south, the butterflies travel at incredibly high altitudes, up to 500m up. By using favourable winds, they can reach speeds of up to 30mph, which for a butterfly is fairly zooming along. They’d never been seen previously because people weren’t monitoring butterflies at such high altitudes. Butterflies such as Red Admirals were seen and recorded travelling southwards, but the Painted Ladies were so high up they were able to vanish unnoticed.

Painted Ladies aren’t the only butterflies that carry out these multi-generational migrations. The most famous migrating butterflies are probably the Monarch butterflies in America, which takes four generations to migrate from Canada and Mexico. Once again, these butterflies aren’t using memories, or even passed on knowledge of the migration routes to find their way. Each generation must work it out alone with the help of genetics and instinct.

Monarch butterflies resting on a tree mid-migration. Image by Brocken Inaglory, credit link below.

I find these multi-generational migrations truly fascinating; the idea that these tiny little creatures, with brains approximately the size of a pin-head, are capible of following migratory patterns laid down many generations ago. It’s like a butterfly generation-spaceship, with each individual seeing only a small fraction of the distance and scenery of the full journey.

Brocken Inaglory images

Reference: Stefanescu, C., Páramo, F., Åkesson, S., Alarcón, M., Ávila, A., Brereton, T., Carnicer, J., Cassar, L. F., Fox, R., Heliölä, J., Hill, J. K., Hirneisen, N., Kjellén, N., Kühn, E., Kuussaari, M., Leskinen, M., Liechti, F., Musche, M., Regan, E. C., Reynolds, D. R., Roy, D. B., Ryrholm, N., Schmaljohann, H., Settele, J., Thomas, C. D., van Swaay, C. and Chapman, J. W. (2013), Multi-generational long-distance migration of insects: studying the painted lady butterfly in the Western Palaearctic. Ecography, 36: 474–486. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0587.2012.07738.x

S.E. Gould About the Author: A biochemist with a love of microbiology, the Lab Rat enjoys exploring, reading about and writing about bacteria. Having finally managed to tear herself away from university, she now works for a small company in Cambridge where she turns data into manageable words and awesome graphs. Follow on Twitter @labratting.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. carollia 10:35 pm 05/11/2013

    I wonder if they used stable isotope analysis in their research, in addition to the methods mentioned in the article, that’s the technique that is usual;y applied to long distance migration studies

    Link to this
  2. 2. justin ou 11:26 pm 05/11/2013

    Amazing and inspiring stories.
    Everyone should learn to appreciate the beauty of nature.
    There are full of complex and mysterious puzzles in earth wait for explorations. Be curious and daring to adventure, there is no end in this journey.

    Link to this
  3. 3. S.E. Gould in reply to S.E. Gould 5:29 am 05/12/2013

    Thanks for the comments! Stable isotope analysis has been used regularly to track the monarch butterfly migration, and was used to some extent in this study to track where migrating butterflies had come from once they were spotted entering Europe in early spring.

    Link to this

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