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Monarch butterfly biosphere reserve
Posted by: HoboSylvain | 2013-11-30 19:07:57 | Morelia, Michoacan, Mexico
Keywords: nature, UNESCO
Mexico is the country in the Americas with the most UNESCO World Heritage sites. Although the great majority of its sites are cultural- or history-related, it counts 5 natural sites. One of them is the Monarch butterfly biosphere reserve, which is a delimited territory along the border between the states of Michoacan and Mexico (yes, there's a state called 'Mexico' in the country 'Mexico'). On this site every year hundreds of millions butterflies meet every year during the only butterfly migration phenomenon known to exist.

It's a Canadian from Scarborough, Ontario, who finally discovered the location where the Monarch butterflies spent winter, after a life-long research. Born in 1911, Fred Urquhart was fascinated by the butterflies, and especially the Monarch species. He noticed that he couldn't find dead Monarchs in autumn as he found samples of other butterflies. After some research, he concluded they must be migrating South for the winter. But no butterfly was known to do that. He started a program to track the butterflies by marking their wings and recruiting thousands of volunteers across Canada and the USA.

Each year, he found traces of the butterflies going more South than the year before. After a while, he guessed they were going to Mexico... but no idea where exactly. It's only in 1975, after 38 years of research, that he was able to pinpoint the exact location where the Monarch butterfly was migrating. There's a remarkable IMAX movie film about Fred and his wife work, the movie is called “Flight of the Butterflies”. To date, it's the only known migration of butterflies.

Normal lifespan of a Monarch butterfly is 3 to 4 weeks. But in late summer a special generation of super Monarch is born, the Methuselah generation. This butterfly has a lifespan of 9 months! That's the one who flies South. Since Monarch butterflies are found up to Quebec City (and a bit further, but let's take this as a reference point), they migrate over 4 000 km! These little butterflies that weigh less than a gram can travel more than 150 km in a single day using the air currents!

We are not sure yet how the butterflies find the location year after year, since the ones arriving in Mexico in November are the great-grand-sons of the ones who left in March. Scientists believe it's a genetic imprint, while local natives believe it's more due to the pollen stuck on their wings which would be magnetic that would act as a compass.

There are 13 areas (colonies) identified where the Monarch gather each year. Four of them are open to the public, the others being too fragile and too risky to disturb the Monarchs. Two of them are in the state of Michoacan, including the one of Sierra Chincua where I've been, the two others are in the state of Mexico.

In 2006, the area was listed by the UNESCO as a Biosphere Reserve, that's a list of sites that are judged important for the natural bio-diversity of the planet. In 2008, the three countries on the path of the Monarch (Canada, USA and Mexico) signed an agreement to protect all areas vital to the Monarch migration. That same year, the UNESCO listed the site on his World Heritage list.

I spent about an hour in the company of the butterflies. I had planed my Mexican journey to be there to meet these butterflies. It was planned to be a highlight of my passage through Mexico and it was! I really enjoyed being surrounded by those little butterflies and just appreciate the moment of witnessing one of the great nature miracles.


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