In addition to being a beautiful creature that many admire, the Monarch butterfly is a complex and resilient invertebrate, as well as an important pollinator. The species resides mostly in North America, easily recognizable by its bright orange, black, and white wings and white-spotted body. The Monarch begins its life as a very small egg usually found on the underside of a milkweed leaf. The egg hatches into a vibrant black and yellow-striped caterpillar that feeds exclusively on the milkweed leaves as it grows through five different stages called instars. Once it reaches the fifth instar, the caterpillar attaches its hind feet to something solid that it can hang from as it creates a chrysalis, or a hard skin that encases the caterpillar as it goes through metamorphosis. Over the course of 10-14 days, the caterpillar’s body turns into a rich liquid full of enzymes that eventually form into the organs, body, and wings of an adult Monarch butterfly. The butterfly emerges with wet, wrinkled wings that it must pump and dry for a few hours before it is able to fly.
The first three generations of adult Monarchs will live relatively close to where they hatched as caterpillars for 4-5 weeks in June and July, staying mostly in the Northern United states and Southern Canada. Once it starts to cool in August and September, the fourth generation will begin a journey south, flying up to 3000 miles to reach warmer conditions in Mexico and Southern California, where they will wait out the winter. The Monarchs that “overwinter” here in the south can live for up to eight months, 7-8 times the lifespan of their ancestors. On their journey north in the spring and south in the winter, monarchs feed on flowers that provide rich nectar to fuel their flights, helping pollinate somewhat accidentally during the process. Despite their crucial role and miraculous life cycle, Monarchs are facing threats of extinction due to logging at overwintering sites, habitat loss, climate change and other factors.
Written by: Kayleigh Clement, an undergraduate Environmental Studies student at the University of Oklahoma