Scientists Crack Mystery of Monarch Navigation

SCIENCE

The uncanny mechanisms that monarch butterflies use to navigate thousands of kilometers has long baffled scientists. A new study suggests how they determine which way to go. (Christian Science Monitor)

Read our profile of the “lepidopterist neurobiologist” who helped author the new study.

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources in our Teachers’ Toolkit.

Beautiful monarch butterflies migrate up to 4,000 kilometers (2,485 miles)—from the U.S. and Canada to Mexico—every year. Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic

Beautiful monarch butterflies migrate up to 4,000 kilometers (2,485 miles)—from the U.S. and Canada to Mexico—every year.
Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic

Monarchs are the only insect known to make this type of journey, a migration comparable to North American animals such as pronghorns, bats, and cranes. Map by William McNulty, National Geographic

Monarchs are the only insect known to make this type of journey, a migration comparable to North American animals such as pronghorns, bats, and cranes.
Map by William McNulty, National Geographic

Discussion Ideas

 

 

  • What body part do monarchs use to access their circadian clock?
    • Embedded within the insect’s antennae are these biological clocks. They help the butterfly determine what time it is. So if the sun is close to the horizon, these clocks indicate whether it is rising or setting and therefore if it is in the east or west. Then, if the sun is in the east, for example, the butterfly flies with the sun on its left to go south.”

 

  • How do signals from the butterfly’s eyes and antennae work together to help monarchs navigate?
    • The rate and combination of these neuronal signals tell the brain what signal to send to the body to adjust course. It dictates how much of an angle to change and whether it should turn left or right.”
      • FYI: If monarchs are pushed wildly off-course, “they will actually rotate their bodies around in a full circle as a sort of resetting method.”

 

  • If monarch migration depends on the visible position of the sun, how do the butterflies navigate on overcast days?

 

TEACHERS’ TOOLKIT

Christian Science Monitor: Scientists crack mystery of migrating monarch navigation

Nat Geo: Meet Dr. Steven Reppert, who’s picking the brains of butterflies!

Reppert Lab: Migration

Nat Geo: Monarch Butterfly Life Cycle and Migration activity

(extra credit!) Cell Reports: Neural Integration Underlying a Time-Compensated Sun Compass in the Migratory Monarch Butterfly

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