Florida sees around 120 million visitors every year, but for the Monarch Butterfly, our peninsula is flyover country. The Monarch is the only butterfly species to make a two-way migration (like birds), traveling en masse over 3000 miles from Canada and the U.S. to their winter nesting sites in the mountain peaks of Central Mexico.
Unlike birds, however, no individual Monarch can complete this journey; a single migration occurs across four successive generations. While the exact mechanisms that drive the timing and destination of the migration aren’t yet fully understood, it’s clear that this behavior isn’t learned: the individuals that winter in Mexico are the great-great-grandbutterflies of those who migrated south during the previous season. Still, these offspring may establish winter roosts in the exact same trees as their sires.
This migratory pattern, often cited as “one of the most spectacular natural phenomena in the world,” is even more impressive when you consider that an individual Monarch, weighing in at an average of 0.5 grams (about half of a paperclip), travels roughly 50 to 100 miles each day. The farthest ranging monarch butterfly recorded traveled 265 miles in one day!
Though we are just a brief stop on their long journey to Mexico, Floridians have a unique opportunity to experience their migration firsthand. St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge hosts the annual Monarch Butterfly Festival near the end of October. This year, the festival fell on October 26th, the same day as the Stone Crab Festival in downtown St. Marks.
For years, volunteers have been capturing and tagging butterflies, while recording valuable data, in the hopes of shedding light on their migration patterns. Visit St. Marks during the festival to see large concentrations of monarchs, and watch how volunteers and scientists capture, tag, and collect data before the butterflies finish their migration to Mexico.