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Friday, March 22, 2013

Majestic Monarch Butterflies Under Threat

Monarchs in the sky (SK Films)

Monarchs in the sky. (SK Films)

A new study shows that the number of monarch butterflies spending the winter in a group of Mexican mountaintops dropped an astounding 59 percent this year.

Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, said he expected the overwinter population count in Mexico to be the lowest yet recorded.

Scientists attribute the drop to the destruction of breeding habitat in the U.S., due to commercial farming practices involving herbicides and genetically engineered crops.

Each year, the monarchs make a 2,000 mile migration from as far north as Canada to a few mountaintops in central Mexico.

Monarch butterflies (SK Films)

Monarch butterflies are pictured in an image from the film “Flight of the Butterflies” (click to enlarge). (SK Films)

The trip takes several generations. Normally, a monarch butterfly lives just two months. But every few generations, a super-generation is born that lives seven months, enabling the monarch to make the trip all the way from Canada to Mexico, where it spends five months in the same mountain sanctuary each year.

It’s the longest insect migration in the world.

We wouldn’t even know about the migratory habits of monarchs if not for the work of Fred and Nora Urquhart. The Canadian couple spent their lives trying to solve the riddle of where the monarchs go in the winter.

Their story is told in the vivid IMAX 3D film, “Flight of the Butterflies.” The movie is now being shown nationwide (find a theater).

While the news for the butterflies this year is grim, Chip Taylor says the same type of citizen scientists who helped the Urquharts initially track the butterflies from Canada to Mexico by putting tags on them, can now help save monarchs.

Taylor is encouraging people to create “monarch way stations,” by planting milkweed in butterfly gardens. Milkweed is the primary food source and breeding ground for monarchs, and is essential to their survival.

Taylor is helping people make these gardens by providing information on the Flight of the Butterflies website and on the Monarch Watch website.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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