The Monarch: A Butterfly Beyond Borders

Opening Transcript

The average North American is five feet, eight inches tall, has 123 million calories of reserve fat and a brain that weighs almost three pounds. The Monarch butterfly has a wing span of eleven centimetres, weighs approximately half a gram and has a brain the size of a pin head.

If one of us were to fly to Mexico, we would jump on a jet plane, use up almost 19,000 gallons of jet fuel, be guided by over 160 weather stations, 2000 tracking devices and hundreds of computers.

The monarch will also fly to Mexico but, with no map, no guide, not even the collective memory of its ancestors to show it the way.

We would fly at 928 kilometres an hour, through rain, sleet or even snow, arriving in Mexico in a little over five hours, and more than 4,000 kilometres later. In many ways, a miraculous achievement of technology.

The butterfly, all alone, with wings as thin as a maple leaf, will fly at an average speed of twelve kilometres an hour. For weeks it will brave winds and severe weather to find its way southwest.

It is an epic journey that will take it across the great lakes, all of the United States and half of Mexico, to find an exact patch of forest deep in the mountains of Mexico. If it survives, it will join millions of others to earn its name. The Monarch: A Butterfly Beyond Borders . __

Each year the monarch butterfly, with wings as thin as a leaf, travels across three countries and more than 4,000 kilometers to find an exact patch of forest deep in the mountains of Mexico. The climate of this particular forest offers the precise humidity and temperature that the monarchs need to survive the winter.

Even after decades of scientific study, this butterfly’s patterns of life continue to amaze us and the secrets they hold within their delicate and resilient frames remain tantalizing. How do they find their way to sites thousands of miles away that they have never seen before? How do they manage to cross thick forests, deserts and oceans and still stay out of harm’s way? And how is their migration so intimately linked with our own survival?

Today, as never before, environmental impacts in the three countries other monarch spans – Canada, the United States and Mexico – have raised new questions about the fragility of our interdependent world. Our competing and conflicting environmental and economic interests only serve to endanger this amazing creature’s various habitats and to impoverish our own lives.

Filmed in three countries, with spectacular close-up photography and a striking original music score, this hour-long documentary breaks new ground. It confirms what we do know; but more importantly it reveals what, despite all our scientific advances, we still do not know. For all our efforts, the phenomenon of monarch butterfly migration remains an elusive mystery.

Dr. Lincoln Brower was once expelled from school for playing hooky in order to catch butterflies. Today he is a leading authority on the biology of the monarch, at Sweet Briar College, Virginia.

Dr. Lincoln Brower
“The monarch butterfly is the most common butterfly in the world probably. It evolved in South America, we believe, and from Central America and Mexico invaded the United States and Canada. But the monarch is the only butterfly in its sub:family and, really, one of the few butterflies in the world, that is able to explode out of the tropics, into the temperate zone which is the most complex migration of any insect, of any invertebrate in the whole world. It’s so birdlike.”

Autumn at Point Pelee National Park in Ontario. Here on the shores of Lake Erie, migrating birds and butterflies gather in the fall before attempting to cross the Great Lakes. It’s a popular place to view migration.

Tammy Dobbie is a Parks Canada guide who provides information about the monarch as well as helping visitors to spot the butterflies as they migrate south.

Tammy Dobbie
“Monarchs are kind of funnelled into Point Pelee National Park, because of the Great Lakes mostly. Monarchs coming from Central Ontario, Eastern Ontario and Northern Ontario all start to head south, towards Mexico, and eventually encounter the Great Lakes. And, if they follow the shoreline, they eventually end up in Point Pelee and then when they get down to the tip realize that this is a place to cross and will wait here until the proper conditions to cross the lake.”

Find out more about the Monarch butterfly and its incredible migration at Monarch Watch .