The Great Butterfly Diaspora

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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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