Spring into Action for Butterflies

| April 11, 2014

After what seems like an endless winter, it appears that Spring has finally sprung, and with that, the beauty of flowering plants, budding trees and especially Texas wildflowers. These colorful symbols of Spring provide important habitat for a number of migratory pollinators that call the State of Texas home every year. One of the most fascinating, and fragile, of all these pollinating animals is the butterfly and Texas is home to more 450 species of butterflies. The Monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus, is certainly one of the best known and most regal of these species, and each year migrates back and forth through the Lonestar State while it, or its descendants make their way from the oyamel fir forests in Mexico to Canada and back.

Monarchs have a complex life cycle (which includes four changes in form) and depend on specific types of plants for food – not only for the adults (which feed on nectar from flowers), but for their offspring, the caterpillars, once they hatch from the eggs which the adult lays on the leaves of the plants. The Monarch caterpillars feed exclusively on Milkweed plants, especially the common Milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, so this is where the female Monarch chooses to lay her eggs. Texas is home to 30 species of Milkweeds, making our State one of the most important breeding and feeding grounds for the Monarch butterfly along its over 2000 mile migration path. Unfortunately a number of factors in recent years has caused a marked decline in the numbers of Monarch butterflies making their annual migrations in the United States which occur in the Fall and Spring each year. Severe weather, such as droughts and freezing temperatures, has impacted the butterfly populations, but one of greatest threats is loss of critical “butterfly friendly” habitat in Mexico, the Midwest and Canada. In the US, an increase in the production of herbicide tolerant crops and of soybean and corn for biofuels, and the conversion of land for these purposes may be responsible for the disappearance of as much as 60% of the milkweed in these grassland ecosystems.

In Mexico, logging activities, crop burning and natural threats such as mistletoe invasion and parasites impact the Monarch in their overwintering sites.1 According to a recent article in Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine, “Butterfly on the Brink?” 1 the most important thing that Texans can do to help Monarch butterflies is to plant milkweed. This year, as part of our Earth Day celebration at The Dallas World Aquarium, we will be helping our visitors to do just that by providing information on the importance of the Monarch butterfly and other pollinators, and encouraging our guests to create “Monarch friendly” gardens in their homes, schools and businesses. Perhaps this year, as we drive along our colorful highways, and admire the Texas wildflowers, our State’s motto should read: Don’t Mess with Texas Monarchs! After all, the Monarch butterfly is the official State insect.

1 McCorkle, Rob. Butterfly on the Brink? Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine. March 2014. www.tpwmagazine.com/archive/2014/mar/ed_2_monarch

For more information on Monarch migrations and other butterflies, and creating a butterfly garden, visit the following sites:

The Butterfly Conservation Initiative – www.butterflyrecovery.org

The Xerces society – www.xerces.org
www.xerces.org/monarchs

Keep Texas Wild. Mysterious Monarchs. Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine.
www.tpwmagazine.com/ktw/media/october-09-vol.2-issue2.pdf

Texas Parks and Wildlife an Introduction to Butterfly Watching
www.tpwmagazine.com/nature/media/Butterfly-watching.pdf

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