The Great Butterfly Diaspora


If your desk is anything like mine, every now and then news comes across it of the evil times that have befallen our beloved monarch butterflies. Their numbers are plummeting. Mexicans are chopping down the trees they roost in during the winter. Rampant de-prairieization is doing away with the milkweed they eat. Pesticides are dropping them like gassed French soldiers at Verdun. Soon we’ll be living in a drab, butterfly-free world.

Well, maybe, but a few weeks ago I was chatting with a buddy from Tonga and came to a different conclusion. My buddy and his wife had come to America to restock their supply of junk food, which they can afford to do because he used to work for an airline and they fly for free. Between resupply trips, his wife idles away her days munching Doritos and volunteering at a Tongalese butterfly sanctuary.

It isn’t just Tonga that has our monarchs. It’s Hawaii, too. And dozens of other Pacific Islands all the way right up to the Asian mainland and south to Australia.

A butterfly sanctuary in Tonga? I imagined glamorous, iridescent butterflies, wings dappling in the tropical sun.

“Not so,” my rather large buddy said. “They’re monarchs.”

Monarchs, I thought. A false cognate some local species got tagged with because they reminded a homesick 19th-century sailor of the butterflies in Nantucket.

“They’re not like American monarchs,” my buddy said. “They are American monarchs. Danaus plexippus. They’re the same species.” He seemed to know a lot about butterflies.

The speculation is that their caterpillars got to Tonga by weaving themselves up in cocoons and hitching rides on sailing ships back around the time of the Civil War, but nobody really knows.

It isn’t just Tonga that has our monarchs. It’s Hawaii, too. And dozens of other Pacific Islands all the way through Taiwan and Borneo and Sumatra right up to the Asian mainland and south to Australia. They’re not just in the Pacific, either. Monarchs have made it to the far side of the Indian Ocean where they’re happily flitting around Mauritius and Reunion Island over near Madagascar. Which puts them just about as far from America as you can get without a spaceship. In New Zealand there are so many monarch butterflies that the country has set up the New Zealand Monarch Trust to do heaven-knows-what with them. I’m guessing they want to protect their monarchs, this being New Zealand, but maybe not. To a New Zealander, a monarch butterfly might well be something they need protecting from, along the lines of the Australian possums chomping their way through the kiwis. Meanwhile the monarchs really are chomping through the milkweed.

Nobody even has an opinion as to how monarchs might have gotten to Morocco, but they’re there, too.

It turns out that the critically endangered milkweed stock that’s being driven to extinction by our unsustainable corporate farming practices over here is doing quite well in the Pacific, thank you very much. There are something like a hundred species of milkweed dotted out across the islands, species that include scary sounding, 30-foot trees made out of nothing but milkweed.

Nobody even has an opinion as to how monarchs might have gotten to Morocco, but they’re there, too. Every summer, while our less adventurous, homebound butterflies are flapping their way up from Mexico, their genetic brethren in Africa are flapping their way across the Straits of Gibraltar into Spain and Portugal. Some even flap their way to England. I cannot report on where the ones in the Azores and Canary Islands flap to because the news has not reached me.

Since monarchs already live in Colombia, Brazil, Venezuela, and all three Guianas, that pretty much wraps it up for the continents, except Antarctica, but who knows? There probably aren’t enough butterfly scientists down there to have taken an adequate census. As invasive species go, monarch butterflies are top of the line.

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Jon Harrison

I always cringe a bit whenever Liberty publishes something about environmental or climate issues, because the superficiality of the information often stands in contrast to well-established fact. Not always, but often.

Nature is indeed pretty resilient, and the Monarch butterfly population has gone up and down rather drastically in recent decades, with temporary environmental stresses causing declines, but the species rebounding strongly when conditions improve. Nevertheless, the overall trend is down, particularly in the Western Hemisphere. Although it's a global species, Monarch populations are really concentrated in North America, northern South America, and Southeast Asia (particularly Indonesia, if I remember correctly).

Not all milkweed plants are Monarch habitat. In fact, encouraging backyard gardeners to plant milkweed has caused some problems for the species (those who don't know about this are advised to go to Google, rather than asking this commenter for an explanation).

Monarch habitat in North America continues to shrink, placing some stress on the species. Humans are simply crowding out many other species. In my experience most of Liberty's readers don't really care about such issues. Unlike them, I tend to see 7 billion people on earth as just too many humans, but this sentiment raises the ire of many conservatives and right wing libertarians. That attitude in turn leads to articles like this one, which tell us everything is basically okay and environmental issues are overblown leftist propaganda designed to rob us of our freedom. Unfortunately, the stuff that appears here is often based on very superficial knowledge of the issues. I recall one writer who averred that a mass extinction could not be under way, because he had learned that no large North American mammals were endangered. The latter fact was and is quite true, but it actually has nothing to do with whether a mass extinction is currently underway. The problem was that the writer's conclusion was based on false premises: he had no understanding of how a mass extinction is defined scientifically or how past extinctions have unfolded. Similarly, Bill's mention of milkweed habitat overlooks the fact that not all milkweed is good milkweed from a Monarch's point of view. And monarch habitat is shrinking, notwithstanding Tonga's butterfly sanctuary.

Liberty should really stick to its strong suits -- politics, economics, culture. When it ventures to opine about scientific issues, it too often displays an amateurism bordering on ignorance.

Stephen Cox

Jon— I’m sad to find that you don’t appreciate Bill Merritt’s delightful essay—not only because I admire both your style and Bill’s but also because good news is good news, and the perpetuation of a butterfly species is good news.

But I did find in your message what seems to be a critique of a piece I published in these pages in April 2003—a piece that I’m very glad you remember, though with disapproval. You give me an excuse to commend it to current readers. It’s about how few mammalian species have “gone extinct” in the continental United States since 1492. The answer is 25, at the very most. I figure this is good news, so here’s the link. Go to our April 2003 issue, pp. 11-12.

But beware, dear readers. Of all the things I’ve published in Liberty—and I’ve been in every issue, back to the beginning in 1987—this is the one that elicited the most antagonistic personal responses. Not a problem for me, but apparently some readers have a problem with good news.

To Jon, and everyone else, of whatever opinion, a low bow.


Bill Merritt

A quick heads-up, Jon. Some evil somebody has been impersonating you in the pages of Liberty.

This person claims to have cringed, cringed at the facts I recited about monarch butterflies. I know you much too well from your writings to believe that someone of your mental acuity would ever do anything like cringe in the face of facts lepidopterological. A tough-minded fellow like yourself would grapple with facts, challenge them, contradict them, but never, ever cringe.

This invidious individual actually went on to make up a story about my political beliefs based entirely on what I wrote about butterflies. Then cringed at the story he’d made up. This might make more sense if he’d had some disagreement with the facts, but he didn’t. What made him cringe is that I outed those facts, and that Liberty published them.

But the fruit on the cake is his suggestion that Liberty cease to publish articles about matters scientific. Imagine, a libertarian telling a magazine to censor itself! This guy, for all his guile, is barking down the wrong alley, here. As we Friends of Liberty well know, exploring the facts behind widely-held popular beliefs is the very definition of what the magazine is about.

Curious to find out who this guy might be, I took the trouble to google “Famous Butterfly Authority Figures” and your name didn’t crop up, so that raises another issue about Mr Imposter. Not only is he not entitled to have an opinion on amateurishness and superficiality in his own name, butterflywise, he didn’t even have the sense to impersonate someone who does. The answer you and I would like to know, other than who the heck would pull a stunt like that, is how could anybody possibly believe there’s something amateurish or superficial about adding information to a discussion?

Which brings me to why I wrote about butterflies in the first place. As any literate reader such as yourself would have seen right off, if environmentalists want to change peoples’ minds, they need to stop trafficking in half-truths, because when the rest of us stumble onto the missing halves we tend to wonder what other parts might have been mislaid.

A word to the imposter: hide your eyes. If you cringed at monarch butterflies you’re going to have a grand mal seizure at my piece on polar bears.

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