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Biological Observations of Monarch Butterfly Behavior at a Migratory Stopover Site: Results from a Long-term Tagging Study in Coastal South Carolina

McCord, John W., Davis, Andrew K.
Journal of insect behavior 2010 v.23 no.6 pp. 405-418
Asclepias curassavica, Danaus plexippus, autumn, coasts, females, flight, insect behavior, males, migratory behavior, migratory species, overwintering, roosting behavior, sex ratio, stopover sites, wings, Mexico, South Carolina
Like most migratory species, monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) must stop frequently during their long southward migration to rest and refuel, and the places where they stop are important for the success of the migration. The behavior of monarch butterflies at migratory stopover sites has never been examined in detail. Here we present results of a long-term study of monarchs at one stopover site in coastal South Carolina where over 12,000 monarchs have been captured, measured and tagged (with numbered stickers to track recovery rates) over 13 years. Only 3 monarchs (0.023%) were recovered at the monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico, which is consistent with other tagging studies on the eastern coast. The migration season was longer at this site than at inland locations and monarchs continued to be captured in November and December, when most monarchs had already arrived at the overwintering areas in Mexico. In addition, there were 94 monarchs captured between Jan 1 and Mar 15, indicating that some monarchs overwinter at this site. Of all monarchs captured during the migration season, 80% were captured while nectaring and 10% while roosting. Others were basking, resting, flying and even mating. The sex ratio was male biased by three to one in all behavior categories except those captured mating. Roosting and nectaring monarchs had fresher wings than those in other behavior categories, suggesting that these are younger individuals. There were 13 observations of females ovipositing on non-native Asclepias curassavica during the fall months, which speaks to the potential for this plant to pull monarchs out of the migratory pool. Aside from these insights, this study also serves as an example of the potential that monarch tagging studies have to advance scientific understanding of monarch migration.