Monarch Wonders

So, we measured today in gym and I?m 5?3?, announced my daughter during our latest ice cream trip.

I waved it off; probably just a rough estimate.  After all, if she was 5?3?, it would mean two things.  One, she grew two inches since she had her physical a month ago.  And two, she would be taller than me.

No, she insisted, they measured right.  Can?t be, I returned, so back to back we stood so her sister could eye us out.  Drat.  She was going to be walking home.

Not that I didn?t know it wasn?t coming.  I just don?t think it?s fair to skip a whole inch in the middle like that and leave your mother unprepared.

Fine, I will take some solace in my work.  A colleague sent me an excited e-mail.  She found a tagged monarch butterfly.  Checking the numbers, she discovered it was tagged the previous day in Minnesota.  The little butterfly had flown over 120 miles (direct flight) in about 24 hours.

Wow.  Impressive, I think.  Hmm, how does that compare to a person?  I knew that I could do a nice fast walk at 4 miles an hour (I wanted a sustainable pace, not like running).  So if I walked just for eight hours.... Well, let?s do 12.  Okay, say I walked the entire 24 hours, that?s 96 miles.

Wait, are you saying a butterfly is faster than me?  Plus, it couldn?t have flown the entire 24 hours, right?  Eating and sleeping had to be in there somewhere.

Well, now I feel short and slow.

Actually, it gets worse. Monarch butterflies migrate down to Mexico for the winter. Many birds do that, so in and of itself, it?s not surprising. The trick is, for the monarch, it?s not a return trip; it?s never been there before.

Not only has the migrating monarch never been to Mexico, neither has its parents or grandparents. Monarchs that head south in the fall are several generations removed from the ones who returned from Mexico the previous spring. Knowledge about migration is passed strictly genetically.

As an aside, it also means the lifespan of a monarch depends on the generation. The ones leaving now, provided they withstand the hazards of the trip and of the coming winter, will live for months until heading back to lay eggs in spring. A summer monarch, on the other hand, has a lifespan of one month. Kind of a bummer, in comparison.

Now, never having been somewhere is not necessarily a deterrent to getting there. Of course, when I drive to new places, if I don?t map it out first (and sometimes, even if I do), I often end up taking the, uh, ?scenic route? to get there. Monarchs, though, follow the exact same route of their ancestors, often roosting overnight in the same trees and wintering in the same area in Mexico. It?s like this bug has a pre-set GPS unit, route all planned, in its head, from the day it hatched. Unlike the butterfly, my internal compass, apparently, is a bit off.

To give you perspective, imagine if I told you to return to the town in the old country where your ancestors immigrated to the U.S. from, and follow the exact path they did to get here, only in reverse. Oh, and you also need to do it strictly with the knowledge you have in your head right now. No Google maps, no GPS, not even a paper map. You can?t even phone-a-friend.

How do they do it? Finding out is why scientists encourage the tagging of monarchs. Similar to bird banding, volunteers in the fall capture and then release monarchs after putting a sticker-like tag on their wings. Little by little, they are piecing together the story of this monarch wonder.

Maybe then, when we understand how this insect, albeit a lovely one, travels so far, we can go back to feeling superior about having a complex brain and opposable thumbs.

Or, we can move on to the next natural wonder. The ego is overrated anyway.