While in Cincinnati, I had the wonderful privilege of watching the IMAX film, Flight of the Butterflies. It chronicles the fantastic migration the monarch butterflies make across the continent, and tells the story of the man who traced their journeys. Both stories are incredible. The monarch travels the expanse of the continent with the seasons. In early spring, the females lay their eggs in Texas, and multiple generations are born throughout spring and summer, each further north than their predecessors, until they are spread across Canada. Then, in response to environmental cues, a special generation will migrate south. One single generation will fly from Canada across the United States; millions of butterflies funneling down into Mexico for the winter. What an awesome thing that butterflies who have never made that trip before are able to precisely navigate exactly where to go! The documentary said they receive signals via their antennae and feet, and that these signals allow the butterfly to make flight adjustments to reach its destination. But I wonder, how do they know what to look for? How do they determine which signals to follow?
We understand and appreciate the monarch butterflies’ amazing journey thanks to the efforts of Fred and Norah Urquhart, who spent 38 years on the trail of butterfly wings. Fred decided he would tag butterflies to trace their migratory routes. He spent nearly a decade finding the proper adhesive that would stay attached to the wings! Once that hurdle was overcome, he and his wife faced the challenge of charting the paths of the wind. They solicited the help of the nation to become “citizen scientists” and tag the butterflies, then be on the lookout for butterflies that had been tagged to report on their location. I love that millions of people all over America were eager to participate and all had a part to play in uncovering the mystery of where the butterflies went every winter. There was an incredible interest in natural sciences, in understanding our world and learning to appreciate and protect it. The 60s and 70s were golden days for natural history. Bit by bit, the picture emerged of the butterfly migratory route, and then the map went blank at the Texas border. The Urquharts enlisted the help of Ken Brugger and his wife Catalina, to pick up the trail in Mexico. After sleuthing for a few years, a tip led them high into the undisturbed mountains of Mexico – and there they found them by the millions. They looked for all the world like God’s jewelry box. The air was full of orange butterfly wings – so many that you could hear their wings beating. The treasure had been found. They sent word to the aging Urquharts, and Fred and Norah immediately set out to see their life’s work for themselves. After nearly four decades, a man and his wife answered the question that people had probably been asking for thousands of years – “where do the butterflies go?” While visiting the butterflies’ winter home, Fred found one of his very own tagged butterflies! What an amazing thing to know that the efforts of your work had tangible results!
His discovery was a find of the century. It was priceless information about the life of an insect, so complex and amazing no one could have dreamed it up. His work has inspired young scientists since the 70s. Those who were children then are now the scientists leading the call for conservation of our monarchs. They are the ones who have made the winter sites a protected sanctuary, they are the teachers informing our children’s hearts of how precious life is, they are the parents planting butterfly gardens with their children, and they are the living testament to how one man’s life can impact generations. How beautiful to have your legacy written across the wings of butterflies! I can think of no better tribute for this hero of biology.
Blessings to you,