Almost 200 butterfly aficionados gathered at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center auditorium in South Austin Monday night to hear from four speakers responsible for discovering and sharing the location of the Monarch butterfly roosting sites in Mexico almost 40 years ago.
Dr. Lincoln Brower, one of the foremost Monarch butterfly entomologists in the country, was flown in from Virginia by the Austin Butterfly Forum to join three Austinites instrumental in Monarch butterfly history: Catalina Trail, Dr. William “Bill” Calvert and John Christian. The historic occasion was orchestrated by Mike Quinn, guardian of Texas Monarch Watch and the president of the Austin Butterfly Forum.
Trail is the only living founder of three people present at the “discovery” of the site where millions of Monarch butterflies roost each winter. Calvert and Christian, in collaboration with Dr. Brower, revealed that location to the world two years after the site was first explored by Westerners. NOTE: Native peoples had known about the roosts for centuries, but had no idea the butterflies had migrated from the United States and Canada.
Monday night’s presentation, staged by the Austin Butterfly Forum and billed as “a discussion of The Monarch’s Mexican Overwintering Refugia” did not disappoint.
Wearing a lovely Pineda Covalin silk shawl festooned with lifelike Monarch butterflies, Trail opened the discussion by sharing rarely seen photos of the ancestral roosting grounds as they appeared in the 70s. Such was the state of the Oyamel forests when she and her then-husband, North American Ken Brugger, came upon the roosts after searching the rugged Sierra Madre mountains by motor home in the mid-70s.
“I was speechless,” said Trail in her soft Spanish accent. “They were one-foot high, on the ground and covering the trees all the way to the top, like a cathedral.”
She described how she and Brugger had answered an ad placed in the Mexico City News by Canadian entomologist Dr. Fred Urquhart and his wife Nora for “interested persons” that would help track down the Monarch butterfly roosting sites. The Urquharts had been working on the puzzle for decades. Born on a ranch in Michoacán, Trail worked with Brugger to search the mountains for several years before discovering the ancestral roosts in January of 1975.
“I kept wishing the whole world had my eyes so they could see what I was seeing and feel what I was feeling,” she said, upon witnessing the millions and millions of butterflies covering every surface in the forest. To hear the sound of the Monarchs taking flight was akin to “a symphony of the wings.”
The day they found the Monarchs, she and her husband rushed back to town to call Dr. Urquhart and then came the hardest part: “We had to keep it a secret.”
That’s because Dr. Urquhart wanted to keep the news quiet until he and his wife could visit and he could prepare a scientific paper. Because of poor health, they didn’t make the trip until almost a year later. Eventually Urquhart broke the news with a cover story in National Geographic in August of 1976. That story rocked the world of entomology but left out the specifics of the location and caused devoted scientists like Dr. Brower, who had also been working on Monarch butterflies for years, and Dr. Bill Calvert, to set out on a quest to reveal the butterflies’ location.
The saga has been well documented in the book, Four Wings in a Prayer by Sue Halpern.
While Trail was the star of the show on Monday, the crowd also heard from the soft-spoken John Christian, a quiet, Spanish-speaking photographer and documentarian, who grew up in Mexico and was approached by Dr. Calvert at the University of Texas to accompany him on an adventure in search of the butterflies. Calvert had teamed up with Brower, Dr. Victoria Foe, and her boyfriend (no one can remember his name) to figure out the location of the roosting sites. His role was to set out for Mexico via pick-up truck in search of the location.
“Bill Calvert asked me one day if I wanted to go help him find the butterflies as a translator,” said Christian from the stage, wearing a Huichol bag across his left shoulder. “I said yes, and it was quite an honor.”
Like Trail, and many of us who have visited the roosting sites, Christian was permanently effected by the experience. “It was extraordinary. Not religious, but spiritual. Like a Church of Nature. It’s a sacred place.”
Calvert also spoke, putting all the memories in context by pointing out that with the passage of time, testimony frequently comes riddled with “embellishments and omissions and aggrandizements…resulting in no idea of the truth.”
Calvert recalled how he met Dr. Brower at a seminar and when he realized the entomologist was making the study of Monarch butterflies his life’s work, soon drove all the way to Bustamante, Mexico, to retrieve 200 for him. “He immediately ground them up into paste and did a cardenolide study on them,” said Calvert.
In those days, Dr. Brower was on the cutting edge of research using chemical fingerprinting to determine lipid content and what type of milkweed the Monarchs were eating. Surely this had to be threatening to Dr. Urquhart, who had mastered the quaint-but-effective (and still utilized) practice of physically putting tags on Monarchs to determine their migratory pattern.
Brower gets credit for figuring out that the toxins in milkweed, the cardiac glycosides, are what make Monarch butterflies distasteful to predators, and in fact, may be the key to their roosting survival.
As Dr. Brower pointed out in his own fascinating presentation, cold butterflies don’t move fast and are quite vulnerable for several months at 10,000 feet in the cool Mexican forest. Why are predators not feasting on them in this most vulnerable state?
Because they don’t taste good. Brower’s famous barfing bluejay photo proved that point, below.
Calvert said that when he and Brower contacted Urquhart to ask him the location of the butterflies so they could deepen their understanding and study of the Monarchs, Urquhart “suggested we goto Appalachicola Bay along the Florida coast and retrieve some.” That led to their travels and Monarch findings in Mexico.
The duo realized two important clues dropped by Urquhart in the National Geographic article and in a paper published in the the Journal of the Lepidopterists’ Society: the roosting sites were somewhere at 3,000 meters elevation and on a slope of volcanic mountains in the northern part of Michoacán.
Based on those two simple clues, Calvert determined a small area west of Mexico City that met the criteria and he and Christian set out to find the site. When they arrived in Angangueo, a small town near the roosting sanctuaries, they recruited the Mayor’s son to help them. “He seemed incredulous that anyone would be interested in these insects,” said Calvert.
On New Year’s Eve, 1976, almost exactly two years after Catalina Trail first trod on the spot, they located the roosting sanctuaries.
“That’s what science is,” said Brower, summing up the feat of connecting the dots and following the clues.
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