November 4, 2005

Pilot Tracks Monarch Butterflies on Long Migration

By Chris Aspin

LLANO DE LAS PAPAS, Mexico -- Cows ran for cover and schoolchildren wearing black and orange wings cheered as an ultralight pilot tracking the monarch butterfly migration ended his 3,000-mile journey from Canada to Mexico on Thursday.

Vico Gutierrez flew his plane alongside the bright orange and black butterflies for 72 days and landed near the Angangueo forest sanctuary set aside for them in Mexico, where they rest after an annual migration that fascinates biologists.

It was the first time an ultralight aircraft, weighing about 420 pounds (190 kg) with a wingspan of 5 yards (5 meters), has followed and filmed the butterflies' migration.

Gutierrez decided to join them to highlight the need for conservation.

"Understanding the cycle of life, migration and challenges of this small butterfly, which has the ability to fly more than 3,000 miles, gives humanity a unique message: We can and should learn to confront the diverse challenges of life," the Mexican pilot said.

"We need to put in place conservation projects, not just for the butterflies, but also for the forests, the deserts, the oceans, rivers, plants and animals and we need this to happen so, so urgently."

Tens of millions of monarchs arrive in Michoacan state every year to sit out the winter months in central Mexico's temperate fir forests before returning to Canada.

Not one butterfly makes the round-trip journey, and the offspring of those who start it head instinctively for a place they have never been.

After leaving Mexico, it takes three or four generations of monarch butterflies to reach their summer grounds in Canada and northern areas of the United States. The last generation, which has a longer life span, then makes the journey south to Mexico for the winter.

Locals performed a pre-Hispanic dance to herald the arrival of the aircraft that was decked out like the butterflies' striking black and orange wings. The plane was named Papalotzin, or "little butterfly" in the Nahuatl language.

As Gutierrez traveled the migration route, he said he often saw butterflies in the air, but they only gathered in great numbers on the ground when they stopped to rest.

"We were not flying in clouds of butterflies," he said.

The Papalotzin team plans to make a documentary using film and photographs along the migration route. It is supported by the World Wildlife Fund, a mobile phone firm and the state government of Michoacan.