The Monarch Butterfly
Found in its winter habitat

Pismo Beach, CA

November 11, 2000

When I'm not chasing the history of this land, I like to take a step back and enjoy the natural beauty of my surroundings. Nature can be as diverse and unique as any other element that I might choose to write about. This particular day in November, we happened to come upon one of those natural phenomenon which requires you to be in the right place at the right time. The place was Pismo Beach, California, and the event was the annual migration of the wonderfully colorful Monarch butterflies. These creatures are the only insects that migrate. Having been found as far north as Canada, these delightful lepidopteras form into two large groups and fly south for the winter much as birds do. The group east of the Rockies, flies thousands of miles into the mountains of Mexico. The Western group flies down the coast of California, settling in a few known places to wait out the winter before returning to the North for the next season. Unfortunately, many of the winter habitats are on private lands and, as such, are being destroyed in the name of progress. However one such wintering spot is a State Park and is protected, and here the creatures thrive, darting here and there to the amazement and delight of audiences below. In order to chart the migration of these beautiful creatures the State has students who come in, collect some of the butterflies and mark them with tiny numbers on their wings. That way, when they are found, it is possible to discover where their migration has taken them. Contrary to what many of us have been told as small children, handling a butterfly will not hamper its ability to fly. It all starts with the laying of a single shiny egg on the underside of a milkweed leaf. So tiny that it often takes a magnifying glass just to find them, these eggs will hatch in 4 or 5 days, producing a vivacious little caterpillar ready to devour just about everything in its path. And everything in its path is usually the highly alkaline milkweed leaf. This, it is believed, will give the caterpillar a bitter flavor and as such is often avoided as a food source by most predators. Over the next 10 to 15 days, the constantly changing little larva will increase in size, an amazing 2,700 times, splitting out of his outer skin (molting) 4 to 5 times. During this period, the larva will pass through a series of color changes of its orange, black and white rings. In the final stages, horns will be added to its head and tail. After the 4th or 5th molting, a strange thing happens to the monarch. The larva begins to spin a kind of button of silk-like material with its mouth. Simultaneously a hook called a "cremaster" has appeared at the end of its tail. With the button securely attached to a sturdy limb the larva stabs the hook into the button and then relaxes, hanging upside down from the limb. Shortly the larva will form a J and begins to change.

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