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The Incredible Journey of the Butterflies

Viewing Ideas

Before Watching

  1. Discuss the concept of migration. Ask the class to define the term migration. (The seasonal movement of groups of animals from one region to another.) Discuss reasons why animals migrate. (Answers might include temperature, weather conditions, food sources, and breeding grounds.) Have the class suggest examples of animals that migrate; write their responses on the board. (Examples include bison, songbirds, butterflies, whales, manatees, turtles, and salmon.) Explain to students they will be viewing a program on monarch butterfly migration from Canada to Mexico. Ask the class if they can think of some possible hazards these butterflies might face while migrating. (Possible answers include inclement weather; fatigue; lack of food; natural predators such as spiders and cats; and human-related hazards, such as pesticides and moving vehicles. Cars are the number one killer of migrating monarchs.)

  2. Explore the life cycles of different organisms. Group the class into teams, and have each team choose an organism from one of the following vertebrate or invertebrate groups: fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals (vertebrates); sponges, coelenterates, echinoderms, worms, mollusks, and arthropods (invertebrates). (Make sure that one team studies the monarch that flies the leg of the journey from Canada to Mexico.) Have each group research the following information for its chosen organism:

    • its life cycle
    • when it reaches reproductive age
    • where it is on the food chain
    • threats the organism faces

    Have students use modeling clay, a poster, or presentation software to show the organism's life cycle. Compare life cycles among the organisms studied. How are they similar? How are they different? Which organism survives the longest? Which is the most short-lived? How are the monarch butterfly's characteristics similar to those of other organisms? How are they different?

After Watching

  1. Create a map to illustrate the fall migration of monarch butterflies. Give students access to a map of North America that includes lines of latitude. If necessary, review the concept of longitude and latitude. (Longitude and latitude are angular distances that uniquely define points on a sphere, and are used as coordinate systems on maps. Longitude is defined in terms of meridians, which are imaginary half-circles running from pole to pole, and is measured from the Prime Meridian. Longitude angles range from +180 degrees to -180 degrees. Latitude is defined with respect to the equator and ranges from +90 degrees to -90 degrees.) Then write the following information on the board showing the approximate latitude of migrating butterflies throughout the fall migration:

    Latitude Locations for Migrating Butterflies

    August 2649.00
    September 147.00
    September 645.00
    September 1143.00
    September 1641.00
    September 2239.00
    September 2737.00
    October 235.00
    October 733.00
    October 1231.00
    October 1829.00
    October 2327.00
    October 2825.00
    November 423.00
    November 1121.00
    November 1819.42 (oyamel fir firest in Mexico,
    longitude approx. 100 degrees)
    Source: Peak Migration Dates

    Have students mark each latitude line listed in the data table across the span of North America. Ask them to estimate the distance the northeastern-most monarchs would have traveled, between August 26 and November 18, to the final points in the oyamel fir forest in Mexico (each degree of latitude is equal to about 111 kilometers [68.97 miles]).

  2. Write a field report for a migration-tracking Web site. Tracking the monarch's migration depends on many amateurs who report sightings of the butterflies. Direct students to the Fall 2008 Monarch Butterfly Migration: All Sightings Web site. Have students click on the Information Tool (the circle with the i in the middle) on the left side of the map and then click on one of the colored dots on the map to see the field report for that location. Have students read through five or six different field reports to get a sense for what types of information the reports contain.

    After everyone has finished reading the entries, tell students that they will be writing their own sample field report for an animal, insect, or bird they are going to observe. Organize students into teams, and supply each team with field notes journals, pencils, and magnifying glasses or hand lenses for observing and recording their organism. The report should include the name of the animal (if known), what the animal looked like (size, color, body parts, any distinctive markings); where the animal was found; when the animal was observed; a drawing of the animal; and any other facts that students noted as they watched the animal (i.e., its movements and whether and what it ate). Students should also include descriptions of the environment in which they saw the organism, the weather, and any other information that might be helpful to researchers and scientists.

    Choose a field or park for the students to find, observe, and record their organisms. When they are finished, have each team present its journal notes. What organisms were observed? Why might it be important to record these kinds of notes over time for each organism?

  3. Consider habitat threats faced by some migratory animals. The monarch's Mexican winter sanctuaries are located in old growth, fir forests. In Mexico and around the world, old growth forests are rapidly disappearing as a result of legal and illegal logging. Some animals that migrate to other parts of the world also face threats due to destruction of their habitats. Organize students into groups and assign each group one of the following animals to study:

    • Caribou
    • Florida Manatee
    • Northern Right Whales
    • Pacific Northwest Salmon
    • Sea Turtles
    • Whooping Cranes

    Ask students to find information on the animal's migration route, the number of animals that currently exist, threats to the animal's survival, and any action that is being taken to address these threats. Start a class blog for student reports. Post an entry about the threats migrating monarchs face due to deforestation in Mexico (the trees not only provide a place to rest, but also radiate heat the monarchs need for survival as they overwinter). Ask each group to create a post describing what is happening to its animal's habitat and why the changes in that habitat pose potential problems for the animal. After every group has posted, have all students read all the blog entries. Then have a class discussion about the similarities and differences regarding the threats each animal faces.

Links and Books

Web Sites

Journey North
Allows students to share observations on migration sightings with people around the world and includes a Frequently Asked Questions section that contains information about monarch biology.

Michoacan Reforestation Fund
Contains information on the area and people of the oyamel forests, the historical significance of monarch butterflies, and reforestation efforts.

Monarch Butterfly Biology
Includes basic information about the monarch life cycle, migration, overwintering, habitat needs, and conservation efforts.

Monarch Watch
Presents information on the anatomy, life cycle, sensory systems, predation, and migration patterns of monarchs.


Monarch Magic!: Butterfly Activities and Nature Discoveries
by Lynn Rosenblatt.
Williamson Publishing Company, 1998.
Provides illustrated information on the insect's life cycle, migration patterns, and milkweed, along with step-by-step directions for a number of hands-on activities, such as building a butterfly feeding station, writing field notes for tracking migration, and forming a club to promote monarch awareness.

Last Monarch Butterfly: Conserving the Monarch Butterfly in a Brave New World
by Phil Schappert.
Firefly Books, 2004.
Provides an overview of the monarch species, including its life cycle, migration, and the impact of natural disasters and human development on monarch populations. Includes photographs and illustrations.

The Monarch Butterfly: Biology and Conservation
edited by Michelle J. Solensky and Karen S. Oberhauser.
Cornell University Press, 2004.
Features 27 studies from scientists and naturalists about the biology of breeding, migration, overwintering, population dynamics, and other aspects of monarch biology and conservation.

Activity Author

Margy Kuntz has written and edited educational materials for more than 24 years. She has authored numerous educational supplements, basal text materials, and trade books on science, math, and computers.

Teacher's Guide
The Incredible Journey of the Butterflies

Koch Foundation

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