by Ross E. Hutchins
We would like to thank Mrs. Ross E. Hutchins for her kind permission
to let us reproduce the text of her late husband's book in the
body of this module. Dr. Hutchins was a Professor of Entomology
at Mississippi State University and the author of many books relating
This is a true story of a Monarch butterfly. It was one of thousands
of Monarchs tagged by Dr. Fred Urquhart of the University of Toronto,
Canada, in his interesting studies of butterfly migration. After
being released, this Monarch flew southward across the United
States and on to Estacion Catorce (Station Fourteen) in the State
of San Louis Potosi, Mexico, where it was captured again.
Unfortunately, the records relating to this Monarch butterfly
have been destroyed, so we do not know what the number was on
the tag attached to its wing, nor do we know whether it was a
male or a female. And we do not know the name of the Mexican boy
who captured it. So, in this story, we will call our butterfly
Monarch X. Only the beginning and the end of the journey of Monarch
X are definitely known; what happened along the way we can only
guess. Scientific evidence gathered from the recapture of other
Monarchs indicates, however, that Monarch X probably did not fly
directly toward its final destination in Mexico, but followed
a curving route that took it southward to the vicinity of Georgia
and then westward along the Gulf of Mexico. When captured at Estacion
Catorce, Monarch X was in good condition in spite of its long
and hazardous flight.
Through autumn gales, across rivers, and through forests where
there were many enemies, it traveled. Day by day, from September
18, 1957, to January 25 of the following year, Monarch X winged
its way along with many others. In imagination, let us follow
its wanderings as it flew, like a migrating bird, across this
vast continent to its final destination nearly two thousand miles
The scientific name of this attractive
butterfly is Danaus plexippus. It is a common butterfly
in nearly all of the United States and in Canada, Mexico, and
other countries. The Monarch, and all other butterflies, have
four stages in their life history. These are: egg, caterpillar
(larva), chrysalis (pupa), and adult winged butterfly. The female
butterfly lays her eggs only on milkweed plants and the tiny caterpillars,
which hatch from the eggs, begin feeding upon the leaves. At the
end of two weeks they are about two inches long. Each caterpillar
then suspends itself from the underside of some object, such as
a fence rail, and changes into the inactive chrysalis which lasts
for another two weeks. The chrysalis is very pretty; it is bright
green with golden spots. While in the chrysalis stage the body
of the insect slowly changes in form from a creeping caterpillar
into the winged butterfly. Just before the butterfly is ready
to emerge from the chrysalis, its wings can be seen through the
cellophane-like skin. Soon the skin splits open, and the butterfly
crawls out. At first its wings are crumpled and wet, but they
quickly dry out and harden and the pretty butterfly then flies
Like birds, these butterflies fly
south in autumn and north in spring. Sometimes they travel in
large flocks, which have often been seen in various parts of North
America. The individuals that fly south in autumn are not the
same ones that flew north the previous spring. Their descendants
make the southward flight. For a number of years, scientists have
been studying these migrating butterflies. They attach small paper
tags and then release them, hoping that some of them will, later,
be captured and returned to the scientists who tagged them. In
this way they learn where and how far away the Monarchs traveled.
From such studies it appears that Monarchs tagged in autumn in
Ontario, Canada, for example, fly southward toward Florida and,
when near the Gulf Coast, turn westward and fly toward Texas and
Mexico. Not all the Monarchs follow this path. Tagged Monarchs
have been captured in many eastern states that are not in the
usual flight path. West of the Rocky Mountains, Monarchs also
migrate or fly south in autumn and northward in spring.
At the southern ends of their flight, the butterflies often roost
in trees and bushes in large numbers. Sometimes Monarchs use
the same places year after year, though the individuals are different
ones. For instance, Monarchs have been roosting in the same trees
at Pacific Grove, California, for many years. Such roosting places
have also been found in Florida, Texas, and other southern states.
Why they form these roosting clusters is something of a mystery,
but apparently it occurs when weather becomes cooler. Sometimes
there may be several thousand butterflies clustered in one tree.
Monarch butterflies, like some other insects,
seem able to fly in certain directions as if they had built-in
compasses. When a flock of Monarchs comes to a large city, a forest,
or a mountain, they fly on over it, still going in the same direction.
However, they often fly around large lakes rather than across
them. For the purpose of our story, however, it is assumed that
Monarch X and the rest of its flock flew southward across Lake
Ontario. It is known that they often do this.
We do not know why Monarchs fly southward in autumn and northward
in spring. Possibly it is an advantage for them to breed in cooler,
northern climates where milkweed plants are abundant all summer.
Of course, it is an advantage for the butterflies to fly south
in autumn to avoid winter weather. How the butterflies "know"
when to fly north or south is not fully understood. Recent research,
however, indicates that the southbound flights of Monarchs begin
when the hours of daylight become shorter in late summer. Some
day perhaps we will also learn what it is that guides Monarchs
on their flights. We think perhaps they are guided by the sun,
but we are not sure. Certainly, the Monarchs that fly south in
autumn do not travel by familiar landmarks because they are not
the same butterflies that came north in the spring. The spring
flight was made by their grandparents or great-grandparents.
The text of the story is divided into two-column segments; color bars
divide one segment from another. We have tried to divide the segments
to fit on most computer screens; however, if this is not the case for
your machine, you may have to scroll down to read the last few lines
of each column. For optimum use in the classroom, print out the entire
story and read from the hard copy.
The milkweed plant grew in a meadow in Canada just north of Lake
In mid-August, a Monarch butterfly laid an egg on one of its
leaves. The egg was no larger than the head of a pin. It sparkled
in the sun like a tiny jewel.
After a few days the egg hatched, and a tiny creature caterpillar
crawled out of the thin shell.
The caterpillar immediately ate the eggshell; then it began to
eat the milkweed leaf.
As the days went by, the caterpillar ate many other milkweed
leaves, and it grew very quickly.
When two weeks had passed, the Monarch caterpillar was two inches
It was now 2,700 times as big as when it hatched from the egg.
Its body was circled with black and yellow bands, and it had
two horns at each end.
One day the caterpillar crawled away from the milkweed on which
it had been feeding, looking for a place to change into the
It looked everywhere.
At last it found a good place in a field on the underside of
a rail fence.
Here it spun a small patch of silk into which it hooked its hind
Then it hung head-downward.
Its old skin split open and was slowly pushed off.
Inside the old skin was the chrysalis case.
This case enclosed the future butterfly.
The chrysalis was very beautiful.
It was pale green, marked with golden spots that glistened in
the summer sun.
One morning, two weeks later, the chrysalis split open.
Slowly the winged Monarch butterfly crawled out.
At first the wings were damp and crumpled up.
But little by little the new Monarch's wings expanded and dried
They were rust-red, marked with black, and covered with tiny
scales. The scales were like little shingles.
When the Monarch's wings were completely dry, it sailed away
across the field.
There were many other Monarch butterflies in the field.
In daytime they flitted about with never a care.
The field was near Highland Creek, near Toronto, Canada.
When the fall nights became cooler, the Monarchs began to roost
together at night. They looked like dead, brown leaves on the
One morning in September, a scientist, form the Royal Ontario
Museum in Toronto, visited the cluster of roosting Monarchs.
To each Monarch's right, front wing he glued a tiny tag. The
tag on Monarch X said: "Send to Museum, Toronto, Canada."
It also bore a number.
The scientist recorded the tag number in his notebook, as he
glued each tag to a Monarch's wing.
He hoped that anyone who found one of these tagged Monarchs
would send it back to the Royal Ontario Museum, telling where
he found it.
If any of the tagged Monarch butterflies were sent back, the
scientist would know where they had gone.
By late September, many birds had already left for warmer climates.
With the coming of shorter days, the Monarchs also were
stimulated to begin their southbound flights.
As soon as the sun was high enough to warm the butterflies, they
spread their wings and fluttered away.
Monarch X flew along with the others.
The large flock of migrating Monarchs soon came to the shore
of Lake Ontario. Here they flew about, sipping nectar from various
A few of the Monarchs flew along the shore.
Monarch X and the rest flew southward over the lake. Below them
the water sparkled in the autumn sunshine.
Soon they were out of sight of land.
Near the center of the lake, heavy rain began to fall.
This made it hard for the Monarchs to fly. Some of them fell
into the water and were drowned.
Monarch X also fell into the water. But it managed to flutter
up again and fly across the lake with the others that were left.
Soon the sun came out again and dried its wings.
Within a few hours the Monarchs reached the southern shore of
Beyond the southern shore of the lake, the Monarchs came to a
wooded area and beyond this was an open field, where many
Here they settled down to drink flower nectar; then they flew
Day after day they continued their travels, often flying a
hundred feet above the ground.
Every night they settled down to roost together in trees.
Each morning, after the sun came up and warmed them, they flew
One day they stopped in a field to sip nectar in a flower
A small boy with a butterfly net saw Monarch X on a zinnia. He
swung his net over the flower and the butterfly fluttered about
The boy intended to add the pretty Monarch to his butterfly
He was very pleased to have the beautiful creature. He reached
into the net, picked the Monarch up, and took it out of the net.
Monarch X was very excited. Suddenly it flapped its wings,
out of the boy's fingers, and flew away.
The small boy was sad. He stood watching the butterfly as it
flew rapidly away across the garden.
Soon Monarch X found the rest of the flock and together they
sailed away over the fields.
They came to a range of high mountains, but they did not stop.
They flew up the mountainside in a southerly direction as if
they had the kind of compasses airplanes have.
At the top of the mountain it was very cool.
High overhead there were many birds. They, too, were flying
south for the winter.
The flock of Monarchs settled down in a pine grove for the
The next morning after the sun warmed the mountaintop, the
Monarchs sailed down the other side of the mountain.
Always they flew southward.
They crossed over deep canyons where streams tumbled over rocky
beds. Then they came to level forests near cities, and towns,
They were now in the state of Virginia. They paused now and then
to drink nectar from red butterfly-weeds that bloomed in the
Some of the Monarchs strayed away from the flock and disappeared.
A few others were eaten by catbirds and cuckoos.
Most other kinds of birds do not like to eat Monarchs.
Monarch X and the others that were left flew on southward.
The flock was not traveling very fast. Usually, they flew along
at about 11 miles per hour.
Sometimes, when they were chased by birds, the Monarchs speeded
up to 25 miles per hour.
It was late in October when they reached to Carolinas.
The forests were now tinted by autumn's gold and red.
In the meadows goldenrod was blooming.
Sometimes the Monarchs settled down to drink nectar.
Like airplanes, they needed fuel to enable them to fly. A
Monarch can fly for hundreds of miles on one "tankful"
of flower nectar.
The Monarch flock continued on southward as if guided by some
They crossed the state of Georgia and came to the great
Okefenokee Swamp. Here they flew through a great forest, whose
cypress trees were draped with streamers of Spanish moss that
swayed in the breeze.
Below them were dark waters, where alligators and turtles lay
sleeping upon fallen logs.
One night the Monarchs roosted in a large live-oak tree that
grew on an island. They nestled down among the strands of moss.
Late in the night, a mouselike shrew found the sleeping Monarchs
and ate many of them. Only their wings were left.
When dawn came, there were many Monarch wings scattered like
dead leaves upon the ground beneath the oak.
The sun rose over the brown waters of the swamp and, one by one,
the rest of the Monarchs flew away.
Monarch X was unharmed; it had escaped the hungry shrew.
The Okefenokee Swamp was very large. It took many days for the
flock of Monarchs to fly through it.
Each night, while the butterflies slept in trees, the autumn
moon hung over the watery forest.
Sometimes the call of the great horned owl could be heard.
Deep in the swamp, beneath a spreading live oak, there was a
dark pool where a very old bass lived.
One day in early November the Monarch flock glided across the
Monarch X flew just above the water's surface.
The bass saw the butterfly and lunged out of the water with its
jaws wide open.
But the Monarch saw the great fish and darted away just in time.
There was a loud splash as the bass fell back into the water.
After leaving the Okefenokee Swamp, the Monarchs turned
They crossed the lazy, brown Suwannee River as it meandered
southward toward the Gulf of Mexico.
The weather was warmer now and, at night, damp fog drifted out
of the lowlands.
Some mornings the roosting Monarchs were wet with dew.
But each morning, after the sun had warmed and dried them, they
flew on toward the west.
Soon they came to the wide Pascagoula Swamp, where there were
The islands were covered with fanlike palmettos that rustled
in the breeze.
The Monarchs flew across the swamp and over the wide river.
There were other butterflies flying across the swamp, too.
These were cloudless sulphur butterflies. They were flying eastward
while the Monarchs traveled westward. Different kinds of butterflies
often migrate in different directions.
In late November the flock of Monarchs arrived at Lake
Pontchartrain, in Louisiana, and flew along the shore.
Suddenly, dark storm clouds filled the sky and great winds began
A hurricane had struck the Gulf Coast and was slowly blowing
The Monarchs settled in the bushes and clung to twigs and leaves.
Their wings were wet and limp.
For several days the winds lashed the forest, and some of the
Monarchs were killed.
But the sun came out at last and the winds and rain were gone.
What was left of the flock flew on, still westward.
They crossed over the great marsh-grass prairies of Louisiana.
Beneath them the tall grass swayed in the breeze.
White egrets waded about in the water looking for minnows.
In early December, the butterfly flock left the Louisiana
marshes and came to Texas.
The sun was even warmer now and autumn flowers still bloomed
in many places.
Sometimes the Monarchs settled down to drink nectar.
In Texas, there were fewer trees, so at night the flock formed
roosting clusters in low mesquite bushes.
While flying along in the daytime, some of the Monarchs were
captured by hungry birds.
Gradually the Monarchs began to change their direction of flight.
Soon they were traveling southward again.
One day in December the flock crossed the Rio Grande at Eagle
Pass, Texas, and flew into Mexico.
The size of the flock was slowly decreasing.
In Mexico, the country was dry and desert-like. The ground was
sandy and covered with low trees and cactus.
There were few flowers from which the butterflies could drink
Soon the Monarchs came to the barren Sierra Madre Mountains.
Some of the ranges were more than 10,000 feet high.
But the Monarchs flew through a pass or gap in the mountains.
High overhead, buzzards circled in the sky. They were not
interested in the Monarchs; they were looking for larger game.
Beyond the high mountains there were low mountains and then
Sometimes the Monarchs passed tiny Mexican villages.
Always they flew toward the south.
In early January the flock of migrating Monarchs came to a river
called the Sabinas.
They followed the river down to a large lake, where there were
many people fishing along the shore.
Some of the people looked up and watched the long string of
Then they went on fishing again.
One day the flock came to a railroad track that stretched away
toward the south.
They followed it for several days.
Along the railroad track there was a village, where many flowers
grew around a church.
Monarch X dropped down to sip nectar from the bright blooms.
The rest of the flock flew on toward the south.
Monarch X was left behind.
Monarch X soon drank its fill of nectar and flew away across
the low hills.
On January 25, it flew down a dry arroyo, or canyon, where some
Mexican children were playing. They were from the nearby village
of Catorce in the state of San Luis Potosi.
One boy ran after the lone Monarch and captured it under his
Curiously, the little Mexican boy looked at the pretty butterfly
and saw the tag that had been placed on its right wing in
The tag had English words on it, and he could read only Spanish.
We will never know how Monarch X ended its days.
Holding the struggling butterfly in his hand, he hurried home
and copied down the numbers and the strange words.
Then he tossed the butterfly out of the window and it sailed
rapidly away across the cactus-covered hills.
Later, he showed his teacher the paper with the numbers and
words he had written. She wrote to the Museum at Toronto,
Canada, telling them about the capture of the tagged Monarch.
The scientist at the museum was very pleased when he received
The capture of this tagged butterfly in far-off Mexico proved
that it had flown for nearly 2,000 miles.
As far as it is known, it had flown farther than any of the
thousands of other Monarchs that had been tagged.
Its paper-thin wings had carried it southward across a vast
continent. It had survived storms and escaped many enemies
along the way.
That is the amazing story of Monarch X, a frail butterfly that
established a world's record for long-distance travel.