Beginning in 1937, Urquhart and his wife Norah designed and affixed increasingly durable and sticky labels to the wings of monarchs in their summer range east of the Rockies. The labels read “Send to Zoology University Toronto Canada.” By 1971, hundreds of thousands of summer-range monarchs had been labelled by volunteers and tagged specimens were returned from myriad North American locales, including Mexico. The labelled monarchs sent to Urquhart mapped a distinct movement pattern from northeast to southwest, through Texas, and then into Mexico. So, in late 1972 Urquhart placed an ad in a Mexican newspaper asking for help tracking down exactly where in Mexico the monarchs ended their migration.
Kenneth Brugger, a U.S. citizen in Mexico City, answered the ad in early 1973 and began searching areas where labelled monarchs had been found. In April 1974, Brugger saw monarchs scattering in the sky as if from a central location and focused his attention in this area. Before finding the monarchs, Brugger met and married Catalina Trail, who was born on a ranch in Michoacán. And together they travelled in a motor home through the rugged Sierra Madre mountains searching for over-wintering monarchs.
Forty-one years ago in early January 1975, Trail and Brugger found the first monarch site in an oyamel fir forest at 10,000 feet on Cerro Pelon in northern Michoacán. A few days later they located two other colonies at El Rosario and Chincua. On January 9, 1975, they telephoned Urquhart and told him of their findings. Urquhart asked them to keep the news secret until he and Norah could visit and write a scientific announcement, but health problems postponed their visit for nearly a year. And, when Urquhart did release the news in an August 1976 National Geographic cover article, he didn’t reveal the exact locations.
The news was stunning! Scientists and the general public were thrilled by the “discovery.” Two lepidopterists who also studied monarchs, Dr. Lincoln Brower (whose chemical studies of monarchs identified the toxic benefits of their milkweed host plant) and Dr. William Calvert determined to locate the colonies for themselves.+ They asked Urquhart where the monarchs had been found and were told it was the Gulf Coast of Florida.
Some monarchs do overwinter on Florida’s Gulf Coast and off-shore islands, but these were not the butterflies they were seeking and did not account for the migration pattern to the southwest and into Mexico.
Brower and Calvert deciphered clues from Urquhart’s National Geographic article and a paper he published in a professional journal: the colonies were at 3,000 meters elevation, among oyamel fir, on volcanic mountain slopes in northern Michoacán, Mexico. This directed their search to an area west of Mexico City that met these criteria.
Calvert asked John Christian, a Spanish-speaking photographer who grew up in Mexico, to join the adventure, and together Calvert and Christian traveled to Mexico in a pickup truck. Christian handled translation and photography.
When they arrived in the small Michoacán town of Anganguea, they asked the Mayor’s son for help. The son was astonished anyone would be interested in the marvelous but commonplace seasonal phenomenon. And on New Year’s Eve 1976, Calvert and Christian found the El Rosario overwintering site one year after Trail and Brugger had first located it for Urquhart.
Now, forty-one years later, El Rosario, one of the monarch’s overwintering sites protected in the UNESCO Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, is open to the public. This season’s monarch population, how local residents are working to ensure their conservation and promote ecotourism, and on-going threats from logging and habitat destruction were described in a previous Daily Kos article Monarch Magic at El Rosario Sanctuary (photos!).
El Rosario is one of eight monarch colonies protected by the Biosphere Reserve, and is largest of the five that are open to the public. Six additional colonies occur outside the Reserve. The Biosphere is located in the states of Mexico and Michoacán in central Mexico. It includes 138,379 acres of oak-pine-fir forest habitat but monarchs occupy only a fraction of the reserve (0.67 acres total among all sites in 2013-2014), the rest is intended to protect the overwintering sites.
How you can help monarchs in their summer range by planting the right milkweed species for your area was presented in Sleeping milkweeds wait for spring monarchs. The last chapter of my story will discuss why monarch’s choose these overwintering habitats, what are the threats to their survival in their summer range, and mitigations for these threats.
SUPPORT MILLIONS OF MONARCHS AND THOUSANDS OF LOCAL PEOPLE BY VISITING EL ROSARIO MONARCH SANCTUARY IN MICHOACÁN, MÉXICO.
A BASIC GUIDE TO THE SANCTUARY AND ACCESS INFORMATION IS HERE.
EL ROSARIO, A SANCTUARY NEAR THE SMALL VILLAGES OF ANGANGUEO AND OCAMPO, IS AN EASILY ACCESSIBLE PLACE. . . . THE TWO VILLAGES ARE ABOUT 5 MILES APART, AND ARE JUST EAST OF CIUDAD HILDALGO, WHICH IS ABOUT 60 MILES EAST OF MORELIA. IT IS POSSIBLE TO REACH THIS AREA AS A DAY TRIP FROM MORELIA OR MEXICO CITY, BUT BECAUSE OF THE HIGH ALTITUDE, IT IS RECOMMENDED THAT VISITORS STAY IN THE AREA AT LEAST ONE NIGHT TO ACCLIMATE BEFORE VISITING THE SANCTUARY. THE VILLAGE OF ANGANGUEO IS AT 8,300 FEET AND THE BUTTERFLIES ARE FOUND AT NEARLY 11,000 FEET.
A GOOGLE SATELLITE MAP OF EL ROSARIO AND SURROUNDING AREAS ALONG WITH LINKS TO TOURIST NEEDS LIKE CAR RENTALS AND HOTELS CAN BE FOUND HERE.
SANTUARIO EL ROSARIO WILL BE OPEN TO TOURISTS UNTIL 31 MARCH 2016 — BUT AVOID THE TIME AROUND 16 FEB BECAUSE THE POPE IS VISITING AND TAKE MY WORD FOR IT, THAT’S A MESS. ADMISSION TO THE SANCTUARY IS 30 PESOS ($1.75 US) PER CHILD AND 45 PESOS ($2.62 US) PER ADULT.
* Monarchs west of the Rockies overwinter in California. Only those east of the Rockies travel to Florida and Mexico, although western monarchs are sometimes also found in Mexico.
+ I sat on the front porch of Bill Calvert’s home in the cloud forest and heard a story that stirred my biologist’s soul. I didn’t visit in expectation of a jaw-dropping mystery story. I visited because Bill had offered to loan me a dissecting scope. As usual, though, conversations took off down unexpected paths and I became engrossed. The telling of his story, my questions, his answers took up enough time for us to see the same tourists slogging downslope, headed back to their pensión rooms, that we’d watched stride briskly upslope earlier, dressed in clean polished hiking clothes. On the return trip, they were caked with mud to their knees, usually higher; dampened entirely, if not dripping; and not one thing was clean or polished. Most people had a gleam of “oh wow” on their tired faces. A few griped about the mud, moisture, and mess. (What did they expect? It’s the Cloud Forest. Club Mud.) These people had spent hours being amazed while walking in a complex diverse ecosystem, with over 60 different tree species per hectare and abundant life filling each square centimeter.
Bill, however, found a billion monarchs hanging on fir and pine trees high in the Sierra Madre mountains of Mexico. He walked around the curve of a path and saw millions of monarchs hanging in clusters larger in size than ten gallon buckets as millions more filled the sky, drifting slowly in the air, basking on tree trunks and forest debris. He walked into a world filled with monarchs whose location he and Brower (and two others whose names I don’t remember) had teased out of guarded scientific descriptions. Urquhart tried to give enough details in NatGeo to make a big scientific splash (and he deserves major credit for all the years of perseverance). But he also tried not to provide enough details to reveal their location. An amazing puzzle solved by Urquhart and volunteers like Ken and Catalina. They left a puzzle for Bill and his colleagues — to define possible sites. The current Biosphere covers 138,379 acres and the 14 known colony locations have ranged in cumulative size from 18 acres (96-97) to 0.67 acres (13-14). Bill and John found one (then more), as had Ken and Catalina. Things like this charge me as I wake up each day. What might happen if I keep following new information and my curiosity?
All errors in the telling of the post-National Geographic series of events are my goof. I visited El Rosario in the early 80’s. Heard Bill’s story in the late 80’s. Never guessed while marveling at El Rosario that I’d meet one of the scientists who discovered what the residents had known all along.
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