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HomeTechnology & ScienceMonarch butterflies added to international list of threatened species

Monarch butterflies added to international list of threatened species


The migratory monarch butterfly fluttered a step closer to extinction Thursday, as scientists put the iconic orange-and-black insect on the international endangered list because of its fast dwindling numbers.

“It’s just a devastating decline,” said Stuart Pimm, an ecologist at Duke University who was not involved in the new listing. “This is one of the most recognizable butterflies in the world.”

In 2016, the Monarch butterfly was designated as endangered by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.

Now, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature has added the migrating monarch butterfly for the first time to its “red list” of threatened species and categorized it as “endangered” — two steps from extinct.

The group estimates that the population of monarch butterflies in North America has declined between 22 per cent and 72 per cent over 10 years, depending on the measurement method.

“What we’re worried about is the rate of decline,” said Nick Haddad, a conservation biologist at Michigan State University. “It’s very easy to imagine how very quickly this butterfly could become even more imperilled.”

Haddad, who was not directly involved in the listing, estimates that the population of monarch butterflies he studies in the eastern United States has declined between 85 per cent and 95 per cent since the 1990s.

“What’s happening to monarchs is like a death by a thousand cuts,” said Karen Oberhauser, an American conservation biologist specialized in monarch butterflies. 

“We know that over the past 30 years monarch numbers have been declining, at first really precipitously for about the first 15 years, and then slower and with a lot of annual variation from year to year.”

Longest migration of insect species

In North America, millions of monarch butterflies undertake the longest migration of any insect species known to science.

After wintering in the mountains of central Mexico, the butterflies migrate to the north, breeding multiple generations along the way for thousands of kilometres. The offspring that reach southern Canada then begin the trip back to Mexico at the end of summer.

Plants such as milkweed, pictured here with a monarch, are important for sustaining lifecycles of monarch butterflies. The insects are endangered by loss of habitat, the use of herbicides and pesticides, and climate change. (Michael Charles Cole/CBC)

“It’s a true spectacle and incites such awe,” said Anna Walker, a conservation biologist at New Mexico BioPark Society, who was involved in determining the new listing.

A smaller group spends winters in coastal California, then disperses in spring and summer across several states west of the U.S. Rocky Mountains. This population has seen an even more precipitous decline than the eastern monarchs, although there was a small bounce back last winter.

Emma Pelton of the nonprofit Xerces Society, which monitors the western butterflies, said the butterflies are imperilled by loss of habitat and increased use of herbicides and pesticides for agriculture, as well as climate change.

“There are things people can do to help,” she said, including planting milkweed, a plant that the caterpillars depend upon.

Nonmigratory monarch butterflies in Central and South America were not designated as endangered.


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