Flight of the Monarchs, Page 2
Vanity Fair, November 1999
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The Urquharts combed the Florida peninsula and the Gulf States, but turned up only a cluster of 2,000 in the Rio Grande valley.  During the winter of 1969-1970 the Urquharts drove thousands of miles between Corpus Christi, Texas, and the Big Bend and found no monarchs to speak of. Nor was there any evidence from the recovered tags-small, white, numbered labels printed with the request "Send to Zoology, University Toronto, Canada"-that the eastern population joined the western, one of Urquhart's early theories. A winter colony had been discovered in 1881 roosting on pine trees on the Monterey peninsula in California, but these migrants had come down from west of the Rockies, it turned out, and their numbers were much smaller. In the last two decades some 200 colonies, none with more than 250,000 butterflies, have been found along the California coast. At least 20 have already been wiped out by suburban sprawl.

Everything suggested that the millions of eastern monarchs continued south of the border, but to where? And then what happened to them? Did they remain celibate during the winter months, like their western brethren, who hang in the trees for several months, semi-dormant and in reproductive diapause? Or did they continue to breed, like those in the small colonies found in Florida in 1961 and Arizona in 1968? Urquhart had visions of a hidden Shangri-la-like valley in Mexico, ablaze with flowers, where millions of monarchs were copulating madly. Or was the journey to Central America a one-way ticket? Did they go there to die, like proverbiallemmings?

Sir Rider Haggard, the author of the 1885 adventure novel King Solomons Mines, had reported seeing thousands of monarchs flying south along a volcanic peak east of Mexico City in 1890, and in 1956, Jerzy Rzedowski, a Mexican botanist, had observed in the eastern Sierra Madre, north of Mexico City, a low, scattered wave moving in a southeasterly direction and then, as darkness fell, settling in some mesquite trees. But only a few of Urquhart's tags were recovered from Mexico. The most tantalizing one was found in the late 1960s in San Luis Potosi, in the desert a few hundred miles north of Mexico City. The butterfly had been tagged by Urquhart himself in his backyard in Toronto.

This isolated recovery didn't really tell the Urquharts much, so Norah started to write articles about their work for Mexican publications. One in 1972 in The News of Mexico City, a lively newspaper that serves Mexico City's gringo community, caught the attention of Kenneth Brugger, a 53-year-old American textile engineer who was then living in the sprawling, seething capital. Brugger, who died in November of last year at the age of 80, was fascinated by intellectual puzzles.  Although he had no college education, he had risen to chief engineer for Jockey International, the underwear giant back in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and he had perfected the compactor, a fiber-compressing machine that produced the first shrink-resistant T-shirts. In 1965 his wife left him, he recalled to Carlos Gottfried years afterward. "In a deep depression he traveled to Mexico," Gottfried told me. "One day, down and out on a beach in Acapulco, he met a man who offered him a job at an underwear factory in Ixtapalapa," a colonia, or district, of Mexico City.

Brugger didn't know one butterfly from another, but he liked to take drives and hikes with his dog in the rugged, pineforested volcanic highlands outside of Mexico City. On one of these jaunts he drove through a blizzard of the very orange-and-black butterflies Urquhart was hunting for. Responding to the News of Mexico City article, he wrote Urquhart on February 26, 1973, about the sighting. At the time, Urquhart had a research grant from the National Geographic Society, so he hired Brugger to run down every rumor and follow every lead, to visit every place where a tagged monarch had been recaptured, and to question the locals. Brugger returned to the scene of the butterfly blizzard, but the trail had gone cold. A year of diligent but futile detective work ensued as Brugger showed photos of monarchs to wary campesinos (farmers) in mountain villages, only to meet with puzzled headshaking from them.

In 1974, Brugger, then 55 years old, married Catalina Aguado, a much younger woman he had met through a mutual friend. Catalina (or Cathy, as the Englishlanguage accounts refer to her) was from Michoacan, the state west of Mexico City, where most of the monarch reports and rumors had been coming from. The couple began to comb the craggy backcountry of eastern Michoacan on a motorcycle. Cathy was understandably much better than her husband at breaking the ice with the locals. One day in late 1974 the Bruggers found masses of dead monarchs along a mountain road. Excitedly they wrote Urquhart, who responded, "You must be getting really close. Don't give up now." The couple asked around and a 73-year-old man named Don Benito Juarez called in and said he knew of a place where there were trees filled with butterflies. But he was reluctant to take them there, because the site was on one of the ejidos, the rural common lands distributed to the campesinos after the 1910 Mexican Revolution. The ejidatarios don't take kindly to trespassers on their hardwon real estate.

But after some persuasion Juarez agreed to show the Bruggers the site. It was near the town of Donato Guerra, approximately 100 miles west of Mexico City. They drove on a steep logging road as far as they could up the slopes of an inactive 13,500-foot volcano called Cerro Pelon and then proceeded on foot through a soaring forest of Montezuma pine, oyamel fir, and cedar. Narrow shafts of sunlight shot down to light their way. Mter several hours they came to an alpine meadow, on the edge of which, completely smothering about four acres of 60-foottall oyamels, were perhaps 15 million monarchs. Every trunk was so encrusted as to be invisible, every bough sagged with their weight. The butterflies' wings were closed, revealing only their drab orangy-tan undersides, making them seem like so many pale dead leaves (although this ingenious camouflage was lost on Brugger, who was color-blind). They were motionless, except for an occasional frisson here and there.

A cloud passed overhead, and when the sunlight returned, the butterflies rose into the air like a huge wave rolling into a calm bay. It was January 2, 1975, a date as momentous in the history of lepidopterology as July 30, 1858-John Hanning Speke's location of the source of the Nile~was in the annals of geographical exploration. Who would have guessed that the monarchs came all this way, more than 2,000 miles, to spend the winter at 10,000 feet above sea level, three-quarters of the way up a volcano in central Mexico?

One would have expected that Mexican naturalists at least would have known about it, but they didn't. The local campesinos, obviously, were aware of the seasonal presence of uncountable multitudes of torpid palomas, as they called butterflies, but never having been anywhere else, they had no way of knowing that the phenomenon was anything special. They believed that the monarchs were the returning souls of ~ the dead, because they usually showed ~ up around November 1 and 2, All Saints' 3 Day and the Day of the Dead. One 10- ~ cal group of semi-acculturated Indians, : the Otomi-Mazahuas, had a special word :; for the monarch, seperito, which means ~ "the butterfly that passes in October ~ and November"; the Mazahuas ate (and § apparently still do eat) the protein-rich = monarchs, frying them up in the insects' own oily lipids. The local campesinos let their cows graze on the butterflies that fall out of the trees and litter the forest floor. Sometimes they set fire to the monarchdripping trees for fun, and stomped on the creatures, joking, "There goes your grandfather. ..and your late sister-in-law." 

Brugger called Urquhart in Canada with the fantastic news. Urquhart cabled back his congratulations and instructions to keep looking. If there were only 15 million or so monarchs in this colony, there must be other colonies. Within the year the Bruggers had found two others, El Rosario, between 10,000 and 11,000 feet, and Sierra Chincua, between 8,500 and 11,000 feet, both a few miles from the mining town of Angangueo. So improbable did the elevation of the sites seem that Urquhart wanted to be sure that the butterflies were, in fact, the monarchs from eastern North America. But he had heart trouble and had been advised by his doctor against travel, so a year passed before the Urquharts, accompanied by the Bruggers and a photographer, reached Sierra Chincua.

"Norah and I are no longer young," Urquhart wrote in an article for the August 1976 National Geographic. (They were both in their mid-60s.) "As we walked along the mountain crest, our hearts pounded and our feet felt leaden. The rather macabre thought occurred to me: Suppose the strain proved too much? It would be the ultimate irony to have come this far and then never witness what we'd waited so long to see!"

The article, called "Found at Last: The Monarch's Wmter Home," continued: "Then we saw them. Masses of butterflies everywhere! In the quietness of semidormancy, they festooned the tree branches, they enveloped the oyamel trunks, they carpeted the ground in their tremulous legions. Other multitudes-those that now on the verge ofspring had begun to feel the immemorial urge to fly north-filled the air with their sun-shot wings, shimmering against the blue mountain sky and drifting across our vision in blizzard flakes of orange and black."

A branch, three inches thick, broke "under its burden of languid butterflies and crashed to the earth, spilling its live cargo." Urquhart stooped to examine "the mass of dislodged monarchs." One of them, by an incredible stroke of fortune, had been tagged. The tagger, Urquhart determined when he got back to his motel, had been one Jim Gilbert in Chaska, Minnesota. Urquhart had his proof. He marveled how "such a fragile, wind-tossed scrap of life" could have found "its way (only once!) across prairies, deserts, mountain valleys, even cities, to this remote pinpoint on the map of Mexico."

In the days that followed, Urquhart, Norah, Brugger, and Cathy tagged with distinctive fuchsia labels 10,000 of "my beautiful monarch butterflies," as Urquhart called them in his 1987 book, The Monarch Butterfly: International1ravelel: Decades of tedious detective work had finally paid off. Urquhart had found his holy grail.

Urquhart had no idea at the time that another American lepidopterist, Lincoln Brower, was himself close to discovering the locations of the winter colonies. Twenty years Urquhart's junior, Brower had grown up on the edge of the Great Swamp in New Jersey, and, like Urquhart, he started collecting butterflies at the age of five. When he was 18, Brower played hooky from school to indulge his passion and caught a beautiful Feralia jocosa, one of the first spring moths, whose mottled green wings resemble lichen. His truancy, however, was discovered, and for punishment he had to sit in a chair for a day, suspended from classes.

"At that point I knew I would never be like the rest of them," Brower told me when I visited him earlier this year at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, where he is a research professor of biology. "I learned from this early little act of civil disobedience that you have to rely on your own judgment as to what's interesting in life."

In 1953, Brower married his high-school sweetheart, Jane Van Zandt, and they both enrolled in Yale's Ph.D. program in entomology. Jane wrote her dissertation on mimicry in butterflies, of which the monarch and the viceroy, a butterfly from a different subfamily that does its best to look like a monarch, are a classic case. The conventional wisdom is that since monarch caterpillars eat milkweed, whose leaves and sap contain cardiac glycosides (heart drugs) toxic to birds, birds learn to avoid monarchs; viceroys, which are nontoxic to birds, mimic the monarchs so birds won't eat them. The mimicry of an unpalatable species by a palatable species is known as Batesian mimicry. Accomplishing a resemblance takes many, many generations and is governed by the evolutionary process of natural selection. In fact, Batesian mimicry was a cornerstone of Darwin's theory of evolution. The more a viceroy looks like a monarch, the greater its chance of surviving, until eventually the entire species engages in this masquerade.

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