Monarchs are large, beautifully colored butterflies that are easy to recognize by their striking orange, black, and white markings.
Monarchs are large, beautifully colored butterflies that are easy to recognize by their striking orange, black, and white markings.
Photograph by Misscanon, Dreamstime

Monarch Butterfly

Common Name:
Monarch butterflies
Scientific Name:
Danaus plexippus
Group Name:
Average Life Span:
Six to eight months
Wingspan, 3.7 to 4.1 inches
0.0095 to 0.026 ounces

Monarch butterflies live in North, Central, and South America as well as Australia, some Pacific Islands, India, and Western Europe. Their markings include bright orange wings covered with black veins and rimmed with a black border and white dots. Females have thicker veins in their wings. A monarch's brilliant coloring tells predators: "Don't eat me. I'm poisonous." The butterflies get their toxins from a plant called milkweed, which is their only food source in the caterpillar stage. An animal that eats a monarch butterfly usually doesn't die, but it feels sick enough to avoid monarchs in the future.

The most amazing thing about monarch butterflies is the enormous migration that North American monarchs undertake each year. Every fall, as cold weather approaches, millions of these delicate insects leave their home range in Canada and the United States and begin flying south. They continue until they reach Southern California or central Mexico, nearly 2,500 miles away!

These international travelers return to the same forests each year, and some even find the same tree that their ancestors landed on. Some estimates say up to a billion butterflies arrive in the mountains of Mexico each year.

Scientists aren't sure how migrating monarchs know which way to go, since they only live a few months and none makes the journey more than once. Toward the end of winter, the monarchs in Mexico and California mate. The males then die, while the females head north, depositing eggs on milkweed plants along the way and eventually dying themselves. From these tiny, round eggs come small green-and-white-striped caterpillars, which feed on the milkweed leaves. For about two weeks, they eat constantly and grow by shedding their skin. They are then ready to transform into pupae. To become a pupa, also called a chrysalis, a monarch larva attaches itself with silk to a leaf or branch, sheds its skin, and forms a hard shell. This vase-shaped case starts out green with shiny golden dots and slowly becomes white, then see-through. After 9 to 15 days, a fully formed butterfly emerges.

The entire egg-to-butterfly process, called metamorphosis, takes about a month. Once out of the pupa, the damp butterfly inflates its wings with blood stored in its abdomen. It must wait for its wings to dry before it flies away. Adult butterflies don't grow. They survive by drinking nectar from flowers, including milkweed, clover, and goldenrod.

Threats to survival 

Scientists think North American monarchs have been making their amazing annual journey for thousands of years. But threats to their habitat and food source are making the migration more difficult, and monarchs are now on the endangered species list.  

Habitat destruction over decades in areas where they spend the winter has taken a massive toll. The impact is felt by both the western population, which is found west of the Rocky Mountains and winters on the California coast, and the eastern population, which is found in the eastern United States and Canada and winters in Mexico’s fir tree forests. 

In their summer habitats, pesticides used in farming have killed monarchs as well as milkweed, the plant they eat and lay their eggs in. Climate change, too, is an increasing threat as dramatic weather events such as hurricanes and drought become more common along the butterflies’ southern migration routes.   

Now that the monarch has been added to the endangered species list, conservationists hope that more people will understand how much danger these butterflies are in and that organizations will step up to show folks how to help protect this amazing insect. 

For instance, conservationists encourage people to plant milkweed in their yards so monarch butterflies can lay their eggs and their caterpillars have food to eat. Volunteer opportunities include citizen science, in which regular people help scientists collect critical data that will be used to develop conservation policies to protect monarchs. (Find out how you can help.)