Later that night, I opened the book I've been reading, No Way Home: The Decline of the World's Great Animal Migrations, by David S. Wilcove, and as if by magic, I found myself reading about the discovery of Monarch multi-generational migration. What an amazing story of natural wonder, both the perseverance of devoted naturalists and the story of the Monarchs themselves.
As you may know, Monarch caterpillars only eat the poisonous milkweed plant in eastern North America but neither the butterfly nor its other life stages can survive winters in this region. So they migrate, some wintering along the coast of California, but most, millions of them in fact, funnel into an area of old-growth forests in the mountains of Mexico. Amazingly, it isn't warm there either. But because they store fat in their bodies and winter in a semi-stuporous state protected by the forest canopy, they survive, stirring now and then when the temperature is warm enough to drink water and rehydrate. Milkweed with seed pods
When the time is right, they begin their journey north again, timed with the emergence of milkweed, mating and laying eggs as they go. Caterpillars are hatched, metamorphosis begins and new generations of butterflies emerge. And somewhere in this cycle as the summer comes to an end, a generation reverses directions once again, turning south toward their wintering grounds, continuing their reproductive cycle as they journey. And this is only a tiny glimpse into the fascinating mysteries of these butterflies' lives.
Like all things on this earth and in nature, habitat is changing due to both natural and man-made influences. Species of North American milkweed are declining due to agricultural practices and Mexico's mountain forests, though protected, are being fragmented by logging which in turn is making Monarch's more vulnerable to the harshness of winter.
As I read this story in David Wilcove's style, I felt even more gratitude for the moment I shared with this Monarch and for places in Tennessee like Ijams Nature Center and Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge, where native plants grow full cycle and wildlife are supported in unfragmented habitat.
The more we learn about and understand the nature around us, the better stewards we become. Take a walk and investigate. And while you're out there enjoying the meadow, whisper "thank you" to the milkweed!
Next: The Bounty and the Goldfinch