Captive-Raised Monarchs Fail To Migrate


Monarch butterfly on zinnia at Phipps Butterfly Forest, Aug 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

In case you missed it, a monarch butterfly migration study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in June 2019 has troubling news for those who rear monarchs indoors.

Eastern monarch butterflies, famous for their autumn migration from North America to Mexico, have declined 80-90% in the last 20 years. To help the butterflies many people collect eggs and caterpillars in the wild and captive-raise them to increase their chances of survival. Unfortunately this well-meaning act can damage the insect’s ability to migrate.

Researcher Ayse Tenger-Trolander at Univ. of Chicago stumbled upon this when she purchased captive-bred butterflies for her monarch migration study. To measure their autumn migratory drive she placed them in a flight simulator and noted the dominant direction they wanted to fly. Wild migratory monarchs orient South. The captive-bred monarchs chose random directions, unlikely to migrate.

To further test the butterflies, Tenger-Trolander collected wild monarchs and raised a new generation indoors, mimicking outdoor autumn conditions. Here’s what she found.

Furthermore, rearing wild-caught monarchs in an indoor environment mimicking natural migration-inducing conditions failed to elicit southward flight orientation. In fact, merely eclosing(*) indoors after an otherwise complete lifecycle outdoors was enough to disrupt southern orientation.

Contemporary loss of migration in monarch butterflies, PNAS

Chip Taylor, Director of Monarch Watch, pointed out on NPR that some captive-bred monarchs do make it to Mexico, but added that “the idea of individuals saving caterpillars as “monarch rescue” is misguided. “That’s simply not going to work as a way to boost the population,” says Taylor. “What we really need to do is to improve the habitat.”

We’re learning that monarch migration is complex and very fragile. It’s easy to break it in a single generation.

(photo by Kate St. John)

(*) “eclosing” means emerging from the chrysalis.