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One of the longest-standing mysteries that has puzzled naturalists and scientists for generations has finally been solved. The enigmatic migration habits of the monarch butterfly have both interested and baffled experts for many decades, making the most remarkable trip over thousands of miles between Canada and Mexico.
No other insect in the world travels anything close to such distances, and the finer details of its migration patterns had always eluded scientists. But the researchers in this new study created a model that simulates what goes on inside monarchs as they make the long trip from one country to another.
“Monarch butterflies (complete their migratory journey) in such an optimal, predetermined way,” said study lead Eli Shlizerman of the University of Washington, in an interview with BBC News. “They end up in a particular location in Central Mexico after two months of flight, saving energy and only using a few cues.”
According to Shlizerman, the monarch’s few input cues are solely dependent on the Sun. This was gleaned as he and a group of biologists recorded these cues from the butterflies’ antenna and eye neurons. Taking that data, Shlizerman created a model circuit to simulate monarch butterfly migration, with two controls – one based on the butterflies’ “clock” neurons in their antennae, and one based on their eyes’ azimuth neurons, which tracks the Sun’s position.
“One is the horizontal position of the Sun and the other is keeping the time of day,” he explained, talking about how these internal controls work. “This gives (the insects) an internal Sun compass for travelling southerly throughout the day.”
Shlizerman also told the BBC that he eventually hopes to create a monarch butterfly robot that could prove his model right and track the insects as they migrate from Canada to Mexico. With monarch populations decreasing, he also hopes that his research could “help maintain” their number going forward. In addition, Shlizerman stressed the uniqueness of monarch butterflies and their long migrations as one reason why any kind of research on these animals is so important. This was an opinion shared by one expert who was not involved in the study.
“It is really an incredible feat that these little butterflies are able to make that amazing long-distance migration,” said University of Chicago ecologist Marcus Kronforst in a separate interview with the Christian Science Monitor. “That’s why it’s important for people to try and understand how this happens.” He also noted that Shlizerman’s research on the monarchs could potentially lead to insights on the migration patterns of other animals.
The researchers’ findings were published Thursday in the journal Cell Reports.
UPDATED 4/16/2016 – Quote from U of Chicago’s Kronforst, journal info