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12 Interesting Facts About Monarch Butterflies & Caterpillars

The monarch is one of the most easily recognizable butterflies in the world. They are known for their striking coloration and impressive migrations and are often raised in classrooms to teach students about life cycles. 

While most people are able to recognize a monarch, how much do you really know about this species of butterfly? Let’s learn 12 quick monarch butterfly facts!

1. They’re native to North and South America

Monarchs are a New World butterfly, originally, but they’ve spread to other places too. In fact, you can probably find them just about anywhere that milkweed grows.

They’ve done particularly well in Australia, where they were first introduced in 1871. Many people are surprised that they’re native only to the new world, since they’re one of the most famous and easily recognizable butterflies on the planet.

2. Monarchs need milkweed

Milkweed plants are crucial for monarch caterpillars and butterflies. The caterpillars eat the leaves, while the adults drink the nectar from the flowers. Adult monarchs will feed on nectar from other flowers like zinnias, goldenrod, cosmos and more. 

Monarchs are so dependent on milkweed that they won’t even lay their eggs on any other type of plant. This means that without milkweed, they can’t survive. In places where milkweed has been eradicated, so too have the butterflies.

3. There are seasonal behaviors

Monarch butterfly
Monarch butterfly | Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

A monarch’s behavior after it emerges from it’s cocoon is heavily dependent on when it emerges. If it comes out in the spring or summer, it will immediately begin looking for a mate to begin breeding.

If, however, it emerges in late summer or fall or winter, it will begin it’s migration. This individuals tend to have slightly longer lifespans so they can migrate and still breed.

4. They are poisonous to predators

The beautiful bright orange colors of the monarch serve a specific purpose: they warn potential predators to stay away. Monarch caterpillars and butterflies both taste terrible, and are poisonous. The reason for that is the milkweed they eat.

Milkweed is a toxic plant, and most things can’t eat it. Monarchs are one of the only species that can safely eat milkweed, and once they’ve eaten it, the poison remains in their body to deter predators.

5. Monarch butterflies migrate

Monarch migrations are famous, and they’re quite a spectacle if you ever get to see one in person. Thousands of them will all fly together, sometimes traveling as far as three thousand miles to escape the cold weather which will kill them.

In North America, they migrate from points all across the United States down into a relatively small area of Central Mexico, where they congregate on the trunks of pine to wait out the winter weather.

6. It takes generations to complete the migration

monarch butterfly

Butterflies have short lifespans, and a 3,000 mile migration takes a long time. Many people don’t realize that most monarchs simply don’t live long enough to complete the entire migration. That said, they are still capable of traveling incredible distances for an insect! They can travel between 50-100 miles per day if the weather conditions are right. 

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One whole migration cycle from Canada to Mexico and back might take eight generations of butterflies (four to get there, and four to get back). This means that they’re feeding and breeding along the way.

7. Their wings flap slowly

A distinctive feature of monarchs is their slow, deliberate, and stately flight. Most butterflies flap their wings about 20 times a second. Monarchs, on the other hand, might flap theirs only 7 times a second, and almost never exceed 12 times a second.

This can give the distinct impression of a slow motion flight, especially when there are other butterflies around to compare it to. It’s one of the more reliable and quick methods of determining if you’re watching a monarch or something that just looks like a monarch- and there are many species that look similar.

8. There are gold studs on the chrysalis

Just like the caterpillars and butterflies, a monarch’s chrysalis has a distinctive appearance. It has gold studs on it as golden pigment dot the outside of a monarch chrysalis.

This is due to certain pigments they ingest from the milkweed plant as caterpillars. They manifest in the chrysalis, which, ironically, is a word derived from the ancient Greek word for gold.

9. They can taste with their feet

You might think that the long proboscis they use to suck up the nectar from flowers has their taste buds in it too, but you’d be wrong. Monarchs, like all butterflies, taste through specialized hairs that cover their feet and legs.

This means they may not even taste the nectar they drink, since their feet are usually resting on the flower petals while they feed. So, they taste the petals, and drink nectar they can’t taste. They also taste every other plant they land on.

10. They have copycats

Monarch butterfly
Monarch butterfly | Image by Bill Barlow from Pixabay

Monarch’s manage to avoid most predators with their bright colors, which warn them that the butterfly is toxic. But since most predators just see the colors, and decide not to eat the butterfly, other species can copy those colors and avoid predation even if they’re not toxic. Predators won’t take the risk, so they just avoid all butterflies that look poisonous.

Some species, like the Painted Lady, look similar at first glance but are easily distinguishable from the monarch. Others, like the Viceroy, are almost identical, and can be extremely difficult to tell apart.

11. They’re the state insect in several states

Because of its beauty and it’s huge migrations, the monarch is a population choice for the official state insect. In fact, five states – Texas, Minnesota, Idaho, Illinois, and Alabama have all selected it as their state insect. West Virginia and Vermont have both chosen it as their state butterfly.

12. Monarchs are fast growers

Since they essentially reproduce on the go as they migrate, monarch caterpillars don’t have much time to grow into adulthood before they have to either breed or migrate. So, they grow with incredible speed.

They only remain in the caterpillar stage for about 10 days, and 14 days at the longest. During that time, they grow to 2,700 times their original weight!

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