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Culture > News

Butterflies That Remember A Mountain That Disappeared

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at HPU chapter.

Monarch butterflies are also known as the milkweed butterfly in the family of Nymphalidae. Colors of their wings varies depending on the region, but the most common colors are a black, orange and white pattern. Their wingspan is about 3-4 inches long, with a life expectancy of a year. What’s interesting about the monarch butterfly is their migration. They start from southern Canada and end in central Mexico. By plane, it’s a 4-hour journey. For an average butterfly, with a speed of 30 mph, it can take two months to complete their journey if it’s a straight shot.


The monarchs take about a year to complete their migration, including several rest stops, birthing stops and feeding stops. They fly in swarms and group together during these pit stops. The amazing part of the journey is when they’re about to hit Lake Superior at Canada’s border; the monarchs fly over the lake, but do not go directly south to Mexico. They fly south, and at one point of their migration, they curve east towards Florida, then after a short period of time, curve back heading down south in the same direction they started their journey with. Why is that?

Biologists and geologists believe that in prehistoric time, there was something blocking their migration between Canada and Mexico. It’s scientifically believed that there used to be a very tall mountain in between Lake Superior that may have been one of the highest mountains in North America. If you look at it now, there’s no mountain – but back then, there was. The monarchs – interestingly enough – believe that the mountain is still in existence after a millennium has passed.


You’re probably thinking, why didn’t they just fly over the mountain? Well, it’s not that easy. The highest butterflies can fly is about one thousand feet above sea level. I’ll put it into perspective: if the tallest mountain  in North America is Mount Denali in Alaska, ranging to about 20-thousand feet above sea level, and the mysterious mountain in Lake Superior was taller than that…. the butterflies wouldn’t even make it! Even then, they would have found it useless to use all their energy to fly over it. Their solution is to veer east around it and then head south again.


Every migration is the same route and continues to be this route. The monarchs still think the mountain exists somewhere in Lake Superior. They’re smart creatures, don’t get me wrong. I mean – why would a butterfly “check” to see if the mountain is still there? What if the mountain is still there? They would have wasted all their energy trying to scale the mountain.


National Butterfly Day is on March 14 this year. It’s the day to learn a little bit more about butterflies and appreciate their history – especially the monarchs. They’re also endangered according to Animal Planet. Their next migration is this coming October and you should definitely check out videos of their journey. Here’s the link to the full documentary: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RPQimPt2HYc. You can literally see them veer east on a clear path to go around the mountain!

Guam | Hawaii Pacific University
Katrina Hicks

Northwestern '19