As much as we love nature, the feeling is rarely reciprocated. Chances are if you, a human, went bounding up to a swarm of butterflies clutching your camera phone they’d make like a tree and leave. Researchers have to get creative if they want to capture close-up footage of wild animals and dressing up a camera is one way to do it. The BBC series Spy in the Wild teamed up with inventor John Nolan to create life-like animatronics of meerkats, penguins, and wild dogs (to name a few) that were kitted with built-in cameras. The resulting footage captured sometimes touching and sometimes hilarious moments (ever seen a dolphin get high on pufferfish?), including a group of Langurs that mourned a robot monkey after it was dropped and presumed dead.
A similar approach was employed for some footage aired on Nature on PBS, which saw a drone made to look like a hummingbird getting up close and personal with a swarm of butterflies resting on a tree. The footage is quite literally breath-taking, as it shows what appear to be thousands of autumnal leaves taking flight from a shaggy tree. Of course, they aren’t actually leaves. The floating foliage is in fact thousands of Monarch butterflies, and as the bird-bot gets closer you can see them in all their '70s-style brown and orange glory.
Monarchs migrate seasonally and in winter they head to warmer climes such as Mexico to wait out the cold. Here they swarm around oyamel fir trees to keep warm, which is what can be seen in the video. Hummingbirds don’t pose a threat to butterflies so by dressing the drone up as a benign bird the filmmakers were able to capture incredibly intimate footage without disturbing the swarm.
Monarchs are easily recognizable thanks to their statement brown and orange coloration and while you might think this is a bad idea when predators are about, but this is actually part of a defense mechanism. Monarchs feed on milkweed and have evolved to be immune to its toxicity. Better yet, they actually store the toxins found in this plant to deliver some sage advice to predators: Don’t eat me, I taste like crap.
Monarchs are foul-tasting butterflies and they can poison animals that dare to eat one. Bright colors in wild animals such as frogs and snakes are often employed as a kind of bulletin marketing the animal as one you don’t want to put in your mouth.
As the temperature rises for the Monarchs in the video, they take flight in their droves. The filmmakers ensured the drone was unable to cause the butterflies harm by shielding its moving parts. And a good thing, too, as the Monarchs are so unphased by the drone’s presence that some of them even land on it. The drone is therefore granted safe passage and intimate access to one of nature’s greatest spectacles, and it lives to film another day, which is more than can be said for this egg cam. RIP.