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The Migration of Monarch Butterflies In and Beyond New York

Fri, 19 Jul, 2013 1:00 PM - 2:00 PM

The remarkable migration of monarch butterflies between eastern North America and central Mexico is an endangered biological phenomenon. Despite the butterflies’ high reproductive potential, the migratory population has declined in size over the past 20 years, and losses in both the breeding and overwintering habitats are implicated in this decline. Studies of the dense overwintering aggregations show how the butterflies take advantage of the insulating property of the forest canopy and how cutting of the forest reduces the likelihood of winter survival. The breeding habitat has been degraded, too, by the expansion of herbicide resistant crops and a subsequent decline in the availability of milkweeds. Two citizen groups are taking action to counter the loss of both breeding and overwintering habitats. The reduced population size is not yet apparent here in the Northeast because the abundance of Monarchs we see depends primarily on growing conditions during the spring and summer, but if the downward trend continues, northeastern Monarchs will also decline.

A biologist at Hamilton College for the past 30 years, Ernest Williams studies the population biology and conservation of butterflies. His fieldwork has focused on monarch butterflies at the Mexican overwintering sites, frosted elfin butterflies in central New York sand plains, and checkerspot butterflies in Rocky Mountain meadows. His recent books include The Nature Handbook: A Guide to Observing the Great Outdoors (2005, Oxford University Press), which is a field guide to patterns in nature, and Pathways to Excellence in Teaching (2012, Couper Press), an edited volume of essays about teaching. He is also co-author of The Stokes Butterfly Book, published by Little, Brown and Co., and has published research articles in numerous scientific journals. His Ph.D. is from Princeton University.

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