Disappearing Butterfly Mystery Solved
October 21, 2012

Scientists Solve The Mystery Of The Disappearing Painted Lady Butterfly

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports — Your Universe Online

Using radar, researchers have successfully tracked the autumn migration of the painted lady, solving once and for all the mystery of what happened to the butterfly species after it disappeared from the UK at summer's end.

While some believed that the colorful species of creature simply died out when the season ended, new research published in the journal Ecography reports they actually flee the UK and head south, migrating towards warmer climates, according to BBC Nature Reporter Matt Bardo.

Richard Fox of Butterfly Conservation, a co-author on the study, told BBC News that a team of citizen scientists helped track the flight of the painted lady butterflies in 2009. During the research process, there were more than 60,000 total sightings of the creatures, which scientists had previously established travel to the UK in order to reproduce.

In total, the butterflies were observed traveling 9,000 miles, sometimes at heights of more than 1,000 meters, on a route that took multiple generations to complete and took the creatures on a "round trip from tropical Africa to the Arctic Circle," Bardo explained.

"The radar element of the study“¦ showed that the butterflies flew at an average height of over 500 meters on their way south, reaching speeds of up to 30 miles per hour (48km/h) in favorable winds," he continued. "These images showed 11 million painted ladies entered the UK at high altitude in spring 2009. Twenty six million were counted departing in the autumn."

"Using data from 60 different study sites on the way, the study aimed to plot the migration route taken by painted ladies. It found that it could take up to six successive generations for the species to complete a 9000 mile (14,400km) round trip from tropical Africa to the Arctic Circle," Bardo added. "For each new generation, the butterflies must find plants for their caterpillars to eat, and that is thought to be behind their need to keep moving."

In addition to the UK, 66 other nations throughout Europe helped track the butterflies during their journey south towards France and Spain, said Patrick Barkham of the Guardian.

"This tiny creature weighing less than a gram with a brain the size of a pin head and no opportunity to learn from older, experienced individuals, undertakes an epic intercontinental migration in order to find plants for its caterpillars to eat," Fox told Barkham on Friday. "Once thought to be blindly led, at the mercy of the wind, into an evolutionary dead end in the lethal British winter, this amazing combination of mass-participation citizen science and cutting edge technology has shown painted ladies to be sophisticated travelers."