Monarch butterfly souls return to the fir forests of central Mexico every year. The annual migration of millions of the black and orange butterflies to their wintering spots remains one of the great natural wonders of our world. It triggers annual traditions throughout Latin America because the mysterious creatures arrive from October 31 to November 2. These are the three Christian holy days of All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day and All Souls Day, which is also known as Day of the Dead.
According to the World Wildlife Federation, Purépecha Indians have recorded the arrival of monarch butterfly souls into the Sierra Madre hills above the village of Angangueo since pre-Hispanic times.
“They believe that human souls do not die, but rather continue living in Mictlan, a place for spirits to rest until the day they could return to their homes to visit their relatives. Catholic traditions later intermingled with indigenous cultures. The monarch butterflies came to be regarded as the souls of departed ancestors returning to Earth for their annual visit.”
Monarch Butterflies Winter In Mexico
From their ancestral range in North America, monarch butterflies conduct their annual multi-generational migration. This amazing phenomenon involves individuals using air currents and thermals to travel up to 3,000 miles or more. Monarchs are the only butterfly currently identified that make a two-way migration like many species of birds.
According to the U.S. Forest Service, environmental cues including temperature trigger migration. Monarchs from Western North America overwinter in California, while monarchs from Eastern North America migrate to the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico. Eastern North American monarchs fly south, using several flyways before merging into one in Central Texas. From late October to March they winter in the same 11 to 12 mountain areas in the States of Mexico and Michoacan.
Western researchers discovered these Monarch Butterfly overwintering locations in 1975. The Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve was established in 1980. In 2008 the Biosphere joined several World Heritage Sites in Mexico.
“Monarchs roost for the winter in oyamel fir forests at an elevation of 2,400 to 3,600 meters (nearly 2 miles above sea level). The mountain hillsides of oyamel forest provide an ideal microclimate for the butterflies. Here temperatures range from 0 to 15 degrees Celsius. If the temperature is lower, the monarchs will be forced to use their fat reserves.”
Monarch butterflies travel during the day and roost at night in massive clumps on trees with thick canopies like pines, fir and cedar. Researchers continue to investigate how monarchs return to the same roosting sites along the way as well as the exact location for overwintering. This is particularly astonishing given that the migrating generation has never before overwintered in Mexico.
“It appears to be a combination of directional aids such as the magnetic pull of the earth and the position of the sun among others, not one in particular.”
Also remarkable is the fact that they arrive around the same few days each year. It is no surprise that the people living in the wintering locations consider these Monarch Butterfly Souls to be deceased relatives returning for a visit on The Day of the Dead.
As warm temperatures and lengthening days arrive, the migratory generation of monarchs breeds and lays the eggs. This new generation will journey back to North America. It’s like a multi-generational relay race.
“Unlike the generation before them, who made a one-generation journey south, successive generations make the journey north. Generation 1 monarchs are the offspring of the monarchs who overwintered in Mexico. Each successive generation travels farther north. It will take 3-4 generations to reach the northern United States and Canada.”
19th-Century Monarch Butterfly Samples Inform Today’s Migration Studies
Monarch butterflies are famous for their seasonal migration in North America. But they have also expanded around the globe. Researchers for Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) measured 6,000 museum specimens of monarch butterflies collected from 1856 to the present. They compared the earlier samples with current ones to understand the monarch’s recent global range expansion. Monarchs have established populations in some areas that offer suitable year-round environments.
“Early monarch founders have large and elongated forewings, but post-establishment loss of migration repeatedly leads to smaller wings, a pattern detectable in both time series with historical specimens and experimentally reared monarchs. This research documents how migration-associated traits may be favored during range expansion but disfavored when species cease seasonal migration.”
The earliest historical records from the Pacific expansion event in Hawaii are from 1841. Earliest records for the Atlantic expansion event to Bermuda are from 1847. The timing of the expansion into Central and South America and the Caribbean is uncertain but likely occurred tens of thousands of years ago.
Dia De Los Muertos Celebrations Honor Monarch Butterfly Souls
Just as earlier generations of monarch butterflies are linked, human generations are linked during Dia De Los Muertos. Those who are remembered will never disappear.
While the theme of Dia de los Muertos is death, this festival is anything but mournful. It is two days (November 1 and 2—sometimes extended to weekends) of joyful remembrance of deceased family members and friends. People erect beautiful altars—simple to elaborate–to honor their deceased. The living entice the departed with their favorite foods and beverages. Some altars use incense or favorite belongings and photos from their lives. Most include marigolds and monarch butterfly souls. Jose Guadalupe Posada’s elegant Catrina Skull (la Calavera Catrina) is another popular image, along with sugar skulls.
The Hollywood Forever Cemetery adjacent to Paramount Studios in Los Angeles hosts highly spirited Dia de los Muertos festivities for all ages. All are welcome, alive or dead. Imagine spooky fun, colorful folkloric art and great music wrapped in a sacred observance that captures a comfortable relationship with life and death. Many of the photos in this post are from the 2019 event that honored Monarch Butterfly Souls.
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