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Natural World: Journey's Adventure

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Susie Werts’ monarch butterfl y, “Journey,” hanging out at his winter home in Carpinteria, California.
  • Susie Werts’ monarch butterfl y, “Journey,” hanging out at his winter home in Carpinteria, California.

Sisters Middle School science teacher Susie Werts' record-setting monarch butterfly, "Journey," named such by her students, is back in the news. Professor David James of Washington State University at Pullman—who issued the numbered tag placed on the underside of the butterfly's hind wing—is keeping in touch with researchers in Carpinteria, Calif., who originally reported the butterfly's arrival. Researchers went looking for him, finding him among the 30,000 other monarchs wintering there.

There were no brass bands playing "Farewell, Journey" when Werts opened her hand. The butterfly just jumped into the air and immediately headed south, toward the wintering areas he had never seen in his life.

The only special equipment Journey has (that we can see) is a pair of larger wings and stronger flight muscles than previous monarchs. For some reason not fully understood, the last batch of monarchs hatched from the eggs in late summer have larger, darker orange wings. Perhaps the melanin in the dark scales also makes them stronger. The combination of brighter, bigger and stronger wings is what's required for the arduous journey; first south, then in the spring back north again.

Journey's trip north will go only has far as the first milkweed patch. There he and his partner will mate and she will lay the eggs that will become the 2017 generation of monarchs. With that, Journey's magnificent adventure will come to an end. He has lived out his long life, made the voyage south, spent the winter in the warm climate of California, started back north and has taken part in the creation of the new generation of monarchs that will eventually arrive back where he started his life, near Klamath Falls. (Wouldn't it be wonderful if someone found him and returned him to the Sisters Middle School where he could be on display in Werts' classroom?)

How did Journey know which way is south and then, months later, north? Was it just chance that he went south and no other direction? When we look at the impressive journey monarchs make, perhaps the answer is no. The strongest suggestion about monarch migration is that it's "instinctive," and that they have accumulated a "genetic memory" passed down through generations.

That "memory" takes into account the terrain they fly over and through, such as mountains, rivers, freeways, lakes and other obstacles. Once they arrive in an area that has no harsh weather conditions that would endanger their survival, and the position of the sun fits into that genetic memory, the monarchs adopt it as a wintering site. Obviously though, there are many more theories to be worked out.

Local children's author Jean Nave, along with Werts, is working on a book about Journey's adventure. She wrote to Professor James with her theory as to the route the butterfly took going south, and this is his response: "I think you've got the 'journey' right until Sacramento.

"From Sacramento I would guess he would have traveled south through the Central Valley, Stockton-Modesto-Fresno. Then he crossed the coastal range at some point—maybe Hwy. 41 from Fresno to Paso Robles? As well as river valleys, monarchs sometimes follow roads.... presumably this road goes through a pass. Then he would find San Luis Obispo and continue down the coast to Carpinteria."

Did Journey actually know where he was going, or was it pure chance that his trek to the safety of the migrating trees and warmth ended safely? Who knows. The bottom line is he made it, and he will be one of tens of thousands of other monarchs playing their part in the preservation of his species. Now it's our turn to pitch in by creating monarch way stations... which also help them brighten our lives.


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