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Spring remigration of the monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus (Lepidoptera: Nymphalidae) in north-central Florida: estimating population parameters using mark-recapture

Biological journal of the Linnean Society 1999 v.68 no.4 pp. 531-556
Asclepias, Danaus plexippus, Nymphalidae, breeding, butterflies, eclosion, flora, host plants, mark-recapture studies, migratory behavior, overwintering, pastures, phenology, population size, progeny, spring, Canada, Florida, Mexico
Monarch butterflies [Danaus plexippus) of the eastern North American population migrate each fall from die northern U.S.A. and southern Canada to overwintering sites in Mexico and return the following spring to the southeastern U.S.A. where they lay eggs and then die. The spring remigration is the least studied phase in the annual migration cycle. We therefore conducted a mark-recapture study and examined population recolonization dynamics and residence time in a north-central Florida pasture where the monarch's milkweed host plant (Asclepias humistrata) was abundant. Beginning in late March 1995 two waves of monarchs arrived, their numbers peaked at 71 individuals by mid-April, and the butterflies disappeared in early May. After arriving, the adults remained for 3-5 days, laid eggs and then continued to migrate. We also compared population sizes and arrival times in 1994 and 1996. We found no evidence of a second spring generation, which was also consistent with the deteriorating quality of the A. humistrata plants. Individuals of the new spring generation disappear shordy after eclosion. The arriving population was approximately nine times greater in 1995 than in 1996. Our findings support two recent hypodieses: (1) the bird-like migration of the monarch butterfly in North America evolved with the northward expansion and phenology of milkweeds; and (2) monarchs appear to be migratory throughout their annual cycle of several generations. By lingering for only a short time at each milkweed patch they encounter, the old monarchs returning from Mexico locate the resurgent milkweed flora over an extensive area in the southern states. Then, within less than a month, their fresh offspring continue the migration and exploit the unfolding cornucopia of milkweeds as the spring advances northward. The more we discover about the biology of this insect, the more remarkable is its annual migratory, breeding and overwintering cycle.