The monarch butterfly's iconic orange and black wings are a summer staple in North America. Alighting on flowers and flitting around, light as air, the creature is perhaps one of the few insects universally regarded as beautiful. Unfortunately, the most famous type of butterfly is becoming a much less common sight. In fact, the species was just listed as endangered in a sobering warning sign for the future of other species.
The migratory monarch butterfly is known for its 2,500-mile-long journey from southern winter homes to summer ranges across North America. There are western and eastern populations. The western population winters in California and is found west of the Rocky Mountains. Eastern butterflies go as high as Canada in the summer while they winter in Mexican fir forests. Unfortunately, each population is suffering from habitat loss due to climate change. Pesticide use also continues to poison the butterflies and eradicate their preferred milkweed.
Western monarchs have declined from roughly 10 million in the 1980s to less than 2,000 in 2021. The eastern population has also declined by 84% between 1996 and 2014, although it has faired slightly better. This drastic decline has led the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to add the migratory monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus plexippus) to its Red List of Threatened Species. “Today's Red List update highlights the fragility of nature's wonders, such as the unique spectacle of monarch butterflies migrating across thousands of kilometres,” Bruno Oberle, the IUCN director general, said in a statement. The famous butterflies are suffering with the ecosystem they call home, despite minor recent victories.
Oberle notes, “To preserve the rich diversity of nature we need effective, fairly governed protected and conserved areas, alongside decisive action to tackle climate change and restore ecosystems. In turn, conserving biodiversity supports communities by providing essential services such as food, water and sustainable jobs.” Saving the butterflies will require a united effort for a unique creature.