Fascinating Monarch Butterfly Facts

Scientific Name: Danaus plexippus, Danaus erippus

monarch butterfly
Newly emerged Monarch butterfly and its chrysalis.

Kerri Wile / Getty Images

Monarchs are part of class insecta and live throughout the U.S., parts of Canada, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. They migrate down to Southern California and South America. Their scientific names are Danaus plexippus and Danaus erippus, meaning “sleepy transformation” and “ends of the earth.” Monarchs are known for the patterns on their wings and for their migratory journeys.

Fast Facts

  • Scientific Name: Danaus plexippus, Danaus erippus
  • Common Names: Monarchs
  • Order: Lepidoptera
  • Basic Animal Group: Invertebrate
  • Distinguishing Characteristics: Orange wings with a black border and veins, and white spots
  • Size: A wingspan of around 4 inches
  • Life Span: Several weeks up to 8 months
  • Diet: Milkweed, nectar
  • Habitat: Open fields, meadows, mountain forests
  • Population: Unknown
  • Conservation Status: Not evaluated
  • Fun Fact: Monarchs can flap their wings about 5 to 12 times a second.

Description

Monarchs are migratory insects that travel between August and October to places like Southern California and Mexico. Their diet consists of milkweed, which is poisonous and distasteful to their predators. Males have bright orange wings with black borders and veins with white spots, while females are orange-brown with black borders and blurrier veins with white spots. Monarchs' bright colors as both caterpillars and butterflies are so signature that animals that have had the unfortunate experience of eating one will avoid them in the future.

Monarch butterflies
Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) fly in Cerro Pelon Sanctuary near Capulin village in Mexico State, Mexico. Chico Sanchez / Getty Images Plus

Habitat and Distribution

Danaus plexippus are split into three regions, separated by the Rocky Mountains. The eastern population is the most abundant and lives as far north as Canada and as far south as Texas during the summer. In the winter, they migrate south to central Mexico. The western population is much smaller and lives west of the Rocky Mountains in canyons in California up to British Columbia. They migrate to southern California during the winter. The smallest population lives in Hawaii and islands of the Caribbean. Scientists think they may have island-hopped or been blown to these places in storms. These populations do not migrate annually. Danaus erippus live south of the Amazon river.

Diet and Behavior

monarch caterpillar
Monarch caterpillar crawls across the leaf of a milkweed plant. Annie Otzen / Getty Images

Monarch caterpillars almost exclusively eat milkweed, so females lay their eggs on milkweed. Adults sip nectar from a variety of flowers including dogbane, red clover, and lantana in the summer, and goldenrods, ironweed, and tickseed sunflowers in the fall.

Most adult monarchs only live for a few weeks searching for food and places to lay their eggs. It takes three to five generations for monarchs to repopulate an occupied area until the last generation hatches in late summer. This special generation’s sexual maturity is delayed until the following spring, allowing them to live up to eight months. Monarchs’ uncanny ability to use internal compasses to migrate to the proper place, located over hundreds to thousands of miles away despite never having been there, has amazed many scientists.

Reproduction and Offspring

Monarchs have three stages of development; a larva, pupa, and adult stage. Males court the females, tackling them and breeding with them on the ground. Then, the females search for a milkweed to lay their eggs on. Within 3 to 15 days, the eggs hatch into larvae that feed on milkweed for an additional two weeks. When ready to change into a pupa, the larva attaches itself to a twig and sheds its outer skin. In another two weeks, an adult monarch emerges.

Monarch butterfly life cycle
Monarch butterfly life cycle illustration. blueringmedia / Getty Images

Species

There are two species of monarch: the Danaus plexippus, or the monarch butterfly, and the Danaus erippus, or southern monarch. Additionally, there are two subspecies of the monarch butterfly: the Danaus plexippus plexippus, which are known throughout the U.S., and Danaus plexippus megalippe, which are found in the Caribbean, throughout Central America, and near the Amazon River.

Conservation Status

The monarch butterfly and the southern monarch have not been evaluated by the IUCN red list, although the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) has launched campaigns to increase monarch populations. According to the NWF, the population has declined by approximately 90% due to agriculture and pesticides that kill both the milkweed that monarchs need to survive and monarchs themselves. Climate change has also affected migratory patterns by altering the timing of migration and introducing more variability in weather.

Sources

  • "Monarch Butterfly". National Geographic, 2019, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/invertebrates/m/monarch-butterfly/.
  • "Monarch Butterfly". National Wildlife Federation, 2019, https://www.nwf.org/Educational-Resources/Wildlife-Guide/Invertebrates/Monarch-Butterfly.
  • "Monarch Butterfly". New World Encyclopedia, 2018, https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Monarch_butterfly.
  • "Monarch Butterfly". Saint Louis Zoo, 2019, https://www.stlzoo.org/animals/abouttheanimals/invertebrates/insects/butterfliesandmoths/monarch-butterfly.
  • "Monarch Butterfly - Danaus Plexippus". Nature Works, 2019, http://www.nhptv.org/natureworks/monarch.htm.
  • "Monarch Butterfly Facts For Kids". Washington Naturemapping Program, 2019, http://naturemappingfoundation.org/natmap/facts/monarch_k6.html.