Mystery of monarch migration takes new turn

By Carol Clark | eScienceCommons | June 6, 2012

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Sun beams light the wings of monarchs resting in a tree in Mexico. Photo by Jaap de Roode.

During the fall, hundreds of millions of monarch butterflies living in eastern North America fly up to 1,500 miles to the volcanic forests of Mexico to spend the winter, while monarchs west of the Rocky Mountains fly to the California coast. The phenomenon is both spectacular and mysterious: How do the insects learn these particular routes and why do they stick to them?

A prevailing theory contends that eastern and western monarchs are genetically distinct, and that genetic mechanisms trigger their divergent migratory paths.

An analysis led by Emory University biologists, however, finds that the two groups of monarchs are genetically mixed. Their research, published in the journal Molecular Ecology, suggests that environmental factors may be the key to the butterflies’ choice of winter homes, and to where they wind up in the spring.

"Our data gives the strongest signal yet that the eastern and western monarchs belong to a single genetic population," says Emory biologist Jaap de Roode, who led the research. "This distinction is important to help us better understand the behavior of the organism, and to conserve the monarch flyways."

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