Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Mystery of the Monarch Butterflies of Michoacan, Mexico

They are one of the great mysteries—and beauties—of nature. No one knew where the migrating Monarch butterflies spent the winter until 1975, when the mountaintop in Michoacan, Mexico was discovered by an American named Ken Brugger and his wife Catalina Aguada. The Bruggers had answered an ad in a Mexican newspaper  asking for volunteers, placed by Dr. Frederick Urquhart who had been trying to find the Monarchs’ wintering place since1937.

    The discovery of the Monarchs’ winter hiding place, according to another scientist, was “Like discovering the eighth wonder of the world.”

     For the native Purépecha Indians, the place of the Monarchs had never been a secret.  At the beginning of November every year, the church bells rang, signaling the arrival of millions of butterflies (which had flown all the way from the United State and Canada.)  The Purépechas believed that the mariposas were the souls of dead children, and the annual arrival frightened them, so they did not speak of it to outsiders.

     One of Mexico’s most celebrated poets, Homer Aridjis, who was born in a small village near the hibernation site, had known about the butterflies all his life, since he first discovered them while exploring near his home.  Here is what Christine Potters, an American fellow blogger, whom I met during my recent trip to Morelia, wrote about Aridjis in her excellent blog “Mexico Cooks”

        "In the town of Contepec, Michoacán, a small boy, Homero Aridjis, born in 1940 as the youngest of five Greek/Mexican brothers--used to climb Cerro Altamirano near his home to look at the monarch butterflies that flooded the forests for almost four months in the winter before they left again, heading north. No one living in his area knew where the butterflies came from or where they went. "When I began to write poems," Aridjis said, "I used to climb the hill that dominated the memory of my childhood. Its slopes, gullies, and streams were full of animal voices--owls, hummingbirds, mocking birds, coyotes, deer, armadillo. The natural world stimulated my poetry." But of all of these animals, he says the monarch butterflies were his "first love." Aridjis won Mexico's very prestigious Xavier Villarrutia Award at age 24 and years later, monarchs were still making their appearance in his writing. His 1971 book, El poeta niño, includes a beautiful poem that goes like this: "You travel/by day/ like a winged tiger/ burning yourself/ in your flight/ Tell me/ what supernatural/ life is/painted on your wings...."**"

      Early on, after the discovery of the hibernation site, Aridjis became an activist trying to protect the butterflies’ hibernation place and to prevent the deforestation of the fir trees on which they depend for their survival in the winter.

     When I entered the butterfly sanctuary at El Rosaria, in the Mexican state of Michoachan, on Valentine’s day, last week, as part of the first tour to the area sponsored by Susana Trilling, a chef who is based in Oaxaca, (  the people of El Rosario were still digging out from a tragic storm, exactly a year earlier, which  caused mud slides and floods that buried homes and people and washed away cars, homes and animals, leaving 30,000 homeless and at least 45 people dead. We could see the construction to rebuild roads and bridges as we approached Rosario.

In our itineraries for the trip, Susana had quoted an account of a  storm in 2002 that killed a majority of the wintering Monarchs.  It turns out that the butterflies, who don’t move, but cling to the fir trees when the weather gets cold, can survive temperatures well below zero, if they have little liquid in their bodies, but if they are wet, as they were in 2002, they freeze.  On the day after the storm, acording to Lincoln Brower, an entomologist at Sweet Briar College in Virginia,  “We were wading in (dead) butterflies up to our knees.”  He and his colleagues estimated that 500 million monarchs had died from the storm—five times more than they thought had even existed in the colony.

The scientists feared that only a fraction of the usual number of butterflies would return the next year, but to their delight, they found that the devastated Monarch population had returned to normal.

In my visit last week to the butterfly sanctuary at El Rosario, I learned a lot, including how to tell a male butterfly from a female.  A male has the two dots that you see below on the back part of his wings.   The dark veins on a female are wider

The butterflies that flock to Mexico from the U.S. and Canada to spend the winter are the fourth generation, the “Methuselah Generation” of their breed.

An adult butterfly lives only about four to five weeks, The eggs are left on the milkweed plant, three or four days later the brightly striped caterpillars emerge, and during the next nine to 14 days they shed their skin five times.   On the sixth molting, the caterpillar transforms into a chrysalis, and after eight to 13 days, the adult butterfly emerges. (This is illustrated by a five minute film in Spanish for visitors at a theater inside the Rosario sanctuary.) 

Three days after emerging, the adult butterflies develop sex organs and, five days later begin to reproduce. This cycle occurs three times during spring and summer as the butterflies travel north into the US and Canada until, in the fall, the fourth or “Methuselah” generation is born.  This fourth generation will survive seven or eight months, will  perform the astounding feat of traveling from Canada and the United States to Mexico, and after mating, the females will return back north again to the United States. (The male Monarchs in Mexico after enjoying the 72-hour mating season in February, during which they will mate with numerous females, will then drop dead—their work is done.  Only the females fly back north to lay their eggs.) 
                                      photo of butterflies mating
On the day we walked up the mountain to the most butterfly-crowded sections of the forest, what our guide Raymundo called “The Nucleus”, it was a warm day and the beginning of the mating season, and the air around us was alive with butterflies, while millions more hung on the trees like orange autumn leaves.   We were very lucky, because in the early part of the winter—November and December-- the butterflie tend not to fly, but just to hang still on the trees, and on cold days they’ll do the same.
Our guide told us that only one day in ten will provide the optimum conditions that we saw on Valentine’s Day. As we started up the steps toward the apex of the walk it became clear this was a harder trek than I expected.  (We walked 2008 meters up and 2008 meters back for a total of 6 kilometers, our guide told us—And when we started at Rosario we were already 1850 meters above sea level.)

It looked easy at the start, but only about 100 feet up I was gasping for breath  I quickly realized that the altitude was a major factor in whether or not I was going to make it all the way.  As it turned out, half of our group of six—most in their thirties or early forties—had little trouble making the ascent but the other three of us—with me at 70 being the oldest—had to stop at nearly every bench to catch our breath, while marveling at the scenery around us. (For those not able to make the ascent, horses can be rented, but the last 300 feet up still has to be on foot.)

The butterflies were a constant commotion all around us.  As one book said, the miracle is that they never collide.  In spots where there was water, like a small stream over the road, they clustered. 

The view of the sky, of the laden fir trees, the beauty all around us was indescribable.  When I sat down to catch my breath, the silence was complete-- almost eerie.  But then, as I sat there and my heart stopped raced and my breath returned to normal, I could hearing, ever so faintly, the rustle of thousands—millions—of butterfly wings.

It was a transcendent experience, even for those who have no religion.  No wonder the Purépecha Indians thought the butterflies were the souls of their dead children.

We all took photos and then we realized, as one of the women in our group remarked—there is no way a still photo could give any idea of the indescribable experience we had.  So I tried for the first time to take some videos with my camera, and I’m attaching below a link to one of those videos.  It lasts 55 seconds and if you watch it to the end, you will see some of the members of our group.

This trip to Michoacan, Mexico was a gift from my husband for my 70th birthday—and I can’t think of a better way to mark a milestone in life.  It was something I’ve always wanted to do before I die, and I wish you an equality miraculous and moving experience, to mark a landmark birthday.


lactmama said...

wow - thanks for all of the descriptions of the butterflies, I will look at any Monarch I will meet up with and know if it is a male or a female.

Actually you had another transcendant encounter with the magic of nature,the turtles. Not bad for an old broad.

The universe is sending you a lot of good vibes for your entry into a new decade.

Patent Attorney said...

I've never seen so many butterflies in one place, it's as if they're fruit that you can pluck off of a tree.