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I learned something I did not expect while looking at butterflies in the desert

Published 12:09am Wednesday, April 2, 2014

What are the chances of finding a jewel in the desert two years in a row?
Last year, I wrote of discovering the Musical Instrument Museum, or “MIM” as it is more commonly known in its hometown of Scottsdale, Arizona.  It still remains one of the most impressive museums I have ever visited in my life.
This week I visited Scottsdale again.  I arrived at the hotel two hours after midnight Eastern Time so I was very tempted to bypass the complimentary tour leaving early the next morning.
Butterfly World is the appropriate name of this butterfly conservatory.  Having visited the butterfly exhibit at Callaway Gardens as well as at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, I didn’t have any grander expectations.
The building sits in the desert at the edge of the city, right across the interstate from the spring baseball training stadium.   Stepping through the front doors I was directed to a 3D film about the Monarch Butterfly.  That extraordinary film was only the beginning as I learned some incredible facts about butterflies in general and the Monarch Butterfly in particular.
I had always been aware that the Monarch migrates each year to a small area in Mexico.  However, I wasn’t aware that it takes three generations of the butterfly to make it back to Canada in the summer months and only one generation to return back to Mexico.
You can’t help but appreciate Mother Nature after seeing how this butterfly has adapted for this long journey.
The first generation is born in the fields of Texas.  She moves north and east along a journey that even includes Southwest Georgia.   Along the way, she gives birth to the second generation which carries on the journey before bearing the third generation.
This third generation is somewhat of a super butterfly, because it will travel all the way back from Canada to Mexico.
It will store more food and have stronger wings than those of the three previous generations.
Their compound eyes see much more than those of a human.  Their legs track the scent of the nectar they need for energy.  Their wings don’t flap continuously, but rather they catch the prevailing winds as they soar like a glider.
As beautiful as they appear and as unlikely as their migration story appears to be, the caterpillars from which all the butterflies come feeds on only one plant; the milkweed.   Once common along fence rows when farms were smaller, the decline of this particular plant is one of the greatest threats to the Monarch.
Thanks to less milkweed, more pesticides and changing climates, only 1% of the caterpillars now turn into their more beautiful self.
However, as unlikely as this entire evolutionary journey seems, over 250 Million Monarch Butterflies still descend on the same five peaks in Mexico as they have for thousands of years.
I learned all this in the middle of the desert, at what is the largest butterfly conservatory in the nation.
They have 2,500 butterflies flying around in their huge atrium at any given time, not a small fact given that most will not live more than two weeks.
That is one of the great things about this country.  No matter where you travel, you can learn something when you least expect it.

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