I was recently releasing a monarch butterfly that I had reared from a caterpillar when I was struck with the realization that I may be witnessing the end of something. Last winter the monarch overwintering population was the lowest on record and if this continues monarch migrations could be a thing of the past.
Raising monarch butterflies as a child is what inspired me to be an entomologist. I love all insects, but have always been most fond of caterpillars. As a graduate student working on the effects of agricultural practices on monarch butterflies, I learned that the overwintering sites in Mexico were discovered on the day I was born January 2, 1975. What a cool coincidence I thought, maybe I was destined to always be connected to monarchs.
As I held that monarch on my finger I couldn't quit grasp that in my lifetime we went from discovering the overwintering areas where tens of millions of monarchs wait out the cold to possibly losing this forever. It doesn't seem possible somehow. Monarchs have always been so ever-present around me.
My monarch has no idea that he is about to begin a very long and dangerous journey to the south. He will respond to the cues that have sent his ancestors to Mexico for generations. I admired his beauty and for the first time, as I watched him flit away into the sunny afternoon, I wondered if he will be the last monarch I get to raise.
This fall as you notice a monarch catching a warm breeze, stop and think, maybe for the first time since you were a kid, about what amazing creatures they are. Think about their ability to feed on milkweed that is toxic to most animals, the way they can sequester this toxin and be protected by it as adults, their beautiful green chrysalises with the golden spots, and the amazing journey they take each fall and spring.
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