Sunday, September 13, 2009

Great Moments in Lepidoptery

The Chicago Trib has a run of the mill monarch butterfly story this weekend, but it contains at least one fascinating tidbit. The thing about the butterfly reserve is that it manages to be both an enormously over-marketed tourist trap and one of the most magnificent nature sites in the world. So we were kind of surprised to learn that, as recently as 35 years ago, no one* knew it existed.

Though local inhabitants have always known the monarch butterflies come here to spend the winter, it wasn't until the mid '70s that the area showed up on the international radar. Lepidopterists -- those who study butterflies -- knew monarchs migrated each fall but they didn't know where they went. Spearheading the search was Fred Urquhart, an entomologist living in Toronto, who set up a network of butterfly enthusiasts that over several decades tagged the creatures and reported their findings. Urquhart noted the sightings of tagged butterflies increasingly came from the southern U.S. and northern Mexico, but he couldn't find the winter areas.

Then in 1973 an American living in Mexico City who had read of Urquhart's work wrote to the entomologist when he saw monarchs fall from the sky during a hail storm in the mountains in Michoacan state. At Urquhart's urging, the man searched the area for the wintering sites and found them in 1975. A cover story in the August 1976 issue of National Geographic featuring incredible photos of Monarchs blanketing trees created an international sensation, and it wasn't long before visitors began to show up to see the natural phenomenon.

In the world of 24-hour news, GPS, and the internet, it's amazing to think that people who studies butterflies for a living had no idea where 20 million of them went every year. We would love to have seen the look on the American's face when he came across the reserve for the first time. Even more, we'd love to have seen the blase reaction of the locals. "What...those? They come here every year. Why do you ask?"

*(And yes, we know we're implying that something is "unknown" until the white man "discovers" it. Don't act like you don't know what we mean.)


Anonymous said...

That's a lie. People near the site knew about the site and they did well to keep it secret. It reminds me about the American ambassador who "discovered" the poinsettias, and now Mexico has to pay the U.S. for every poinsettia they plant. Some kind of comission. Ridiculous.

Burro Hall said...

Since the article clearly states that "local inhabitants have always known the monarch butterflies come here to spend the winter," It's not obvious to me which part you think is a lie.

I'd also love to know where you heard that Mexico has to pay the United States a commission on every poinsettia it plants.