The largest and most comprehensive assessment of breeding monarch butterfly populations to date has found that, despite widespread fears that they were in big trouble, these butterflies are actually doing pretty damn well for themselves. Having enjoyed a stable summer population for the past quarter-century, monarchs are now the most widespread butterflies in North America. Smashing!
“There’s this perception out there that monarch populations are in dire trouble, but we found that’s not at all the case,” said Andy Davis, corresponding author of the study and an assistant research scientist in UGA’s Odum School of Ecology, in a statement.
“It goes against what everyone thinks, but we found that they’re doing quite well. In fact, monarchs are actually one of the most widespread butterflies in North America.”
This rare bit of good news comes in the face of warnings from scientists concerned that falling numbers in winter colonies were an indication that monarch butterflies were dropping like flies. However, data from summer populations appears to show no great change over the last 25 years, painting a much more positive picture.
Monarchs are the only butterfly species known to make an annual two-way migration like birds, with a round-trip distance of around 8,000 kilometers (5,000 miles). The populations in North America are split between the east and west, with each migrating to the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico and California respectfully (check out this awesome footage of monarch swarms).
Such an epic journey puts them at risk of getting lost, eaten, or falling folly to changing climatic and environmental conditions. However, the researchers behind a new paper (published in Global Change Biology) believe a summer boom in numbers makes up for those losses.
A win for one of Earth’s most impressive, winged migrators, then – but the authors of the new study warn that while it’s cause for celebration, we mustn't get complacent. Monarchs may be faring better than expected, but there’s plenty of cause for concern as far as wider insects are concerned.
“There are some once widespread butterfly species that now are in trouble,” said William Snyder, co-author of the paper and a professor in UGA’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
“So much attention is being paid to monarchs instead, and they seem to be in pretty good shape overall. It seems like a missed opportunity. We don’t want to give the idea that insect conservation isn’t important because it is. It’s just that maybe this one particular insect isn’t in nearly as much trouble as we thought.”