By LINDSAY WELBERS
When monarch butterflies leave the Midwest every year, millions of them head to a small place in Mexico that was hidden until 1976.
A new movie showing in the Omnimax theater at the Museum of Science and Industry, 5700 S. Lake Shore Dr., explores the story of how it was proved that monarch butterflies make the annual 3,000-mile journey from Mexico to the United States and Canada.
“Flight of the Butterflies” will show at MSI through the summer. The film was produced by SK Films, with funding from the National Science Foundation and presented with help from the Mexico Tourism Board.
The vividly-colored film tells the story of Fred Urquhart, who worked for 40 years to study the migration patterns of the monarch from his home in Toronto.
Urquhart began studying the monarchs in the 1950s after he engineered a method of tracking them using numbered tags. He enlisted thousands of “citizen scientists,” everyday volunteers who would help track butterflies they found by writing letters back to Urquhart with what butterflies they had seen.
The film also describes the migration patterns of the monarch. The trip from Mexico to Toronto and farther north can span 3,000 miles and takes place over three generations in one calendar year.
By 1976, the “citizen scientists” included Catalina Aguado, who searched over two years for monarchs in the state of Michoacán, Mexico. She was among the first people to find five colonies where the monarchs spend the winter, millions in one place, at the top of a mountain.
They found the site late on a cool January afternoon. They found millions of snoozing butterflies covering tree trunks up to the canopy.
Aguado described seeing the monarch colonies for the first time as “a quiet, quiet experience, almost fearful,” Aguado said. “I passed my hand over trunks (covered in butterflies) and they fluttered.”
“I was wishing that everyone in the whole world would see that sight through my eyes,” Aguado said.
She said she theorizes that the reason the site where millions of butterflies gathered at the top of a mountain every winter remained hidden for so long was due to its rural setting.
The Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008.
This year marked the lowest recorded number of migrating monarchs on record.
Orley “Chip” Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch and a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Kansas, said the biggest problem for monarchs is the use of Roundup Ready in farming, resulting in the decline of the milkweed population.
Milkweed is where monarchs lay their eggs and is the only plant that its caterpillars can eat.
Taylor said the best thing people can do is plant milkweed seeds in their gardens. Monarch Watch offers milkweeds to schools and nonprofits free of charge.