Experiencing Monarchs in Mexico

Release Date: 5/1/2009

After completing the Monarchs in Mexico study abroad course in the fall of 2008, Assistant Professor of Spanish Dr. William Clary and Professor of Biology Dr. Frank Knight took a small group of Ozarks students to Mexico for 11 days. They studied the culture and history of Mexico and took an intensive look at the migration of Monarch butterflies.

"Every time I see a Monarch butterfly, I will always be reminded of my trip to Mexico," sophomore Shayla Morrow said.

Before the trip, "my classmates and I studied the nine-month migration of one generation of butterflies to this specific location in Mexico. It's one thing to imagine thousands of butterflies while you are sitting at your desk, but to be able to see them flying all around you and hanging in large masses on the trees is a memory I will never forget," she said.

Shayla Morrow and Julia Frost get the experience of a lifetime during the Monarchs in Mexico trip.

Shayla Morrow and Julia Frost observed the monarchs at their winter resting grounds at the conclusion of the "Monarchs in Mexico" trip.

Seeing the Monarchs was like nothing she could have imagined, the secondary education major said. "When we discussed the migration of the Monarch butterflies in class, I did not really believe it was possible for so many butterflies to be in the same location at the same time."

"Like a swarm of bees," Morrow said, "the butterflies were hanging off of the tree branches in such large numbers causing the limbs to bend. At the same time, they are flying all around you and landing on your shoulder as if you were not a stranger to their environment. It was amazing to witness such a beautiful part of nature."

Because each average adult Monarch lives to be only four to five weeks old, there is a unique fascination in one of the greatest wonders of the Monarch species. Each autumn, the annual creation of a unique "Methuselah generation" occurs and unlike their parents, grandparents, even great-grandparents, this generation lives up to eight months and makes the long journey south for winter, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

The migration of North American Monarch butterflies to central Mexico occurs every autumn as the insects are guided by the sun's orbit from the cold temperatures of North America to the milder, warmer temperatures of central Mexico.

The orange, yellow and black insects are found over much of the United States during the summer months. In winter, nearly all North American members of the species congregate in a tiny volcanic region of the central Mexican state of Michoacan.

Estimated to be around 100 million in numbers, the butterflies travel at a pace of around 50 miles each day, although there are some that travel up to 80 miles in a day. According to the WWF, at the end of October and the beginning of November, after traveling two months, the butterflies settle into hibernation colonies in oyamel forests in the mountains of central Mexico.

Scientists believe that the Monarchs have been repeating the cycle for thousands of years.

The sight of millions of Monarchs brought mixed feelings to Ozarks sophomore Samantha Reed.

"At first, I was very skeptical about there being so many butterflies there at the sanctuaries," she said, "but after being in the midst of it all, it really made me think about all the wonders in life that go unnoticed."

Dr. Clary remembers being overwhelmed by the spectacle the first time he went to see the Monarchs with a group of students in 2005.

"The scene had a surreal quality to it, and everyone feels the exhilaration of being surrounded by literally thousands of fluttering butterflies, whose gentle wing-flapping produces a calming whir in the forest at 10,000 feet. The experience was so moving that I wanted to share it with many more students," he described.

The University's Monarchs in Mexico course is an interdisciplinary course that combines four separate disciplines: the Spanish language, Mexican history and culture, entomology and ecology of Mexico.

Dr. Knight, a zoologist and professor of biology at Ozarks, covered the monarch education, while Spanish Professor Dr. Clary taught the Mexican culture and history aspects of the course.

The Mexican culture and landscape were captivating to Reed.

"The mountains and hills were almost endless, and the beaches were so pretty," Reed said. "Everywhere you go in Mexico, you can just see how the culture takes form in everything. Everyone had a good time there, and I am definitely going back soon."

The course also highlighted the Spanish language and was used as a valuable resource for the students who participated to practice their Spanish while immersed within Mexican culture.

"I loved traveling to the different parts of Mexico," Morrow said, "but I truly valued the opportunity of practicing my Spanish speaking skills."

"A part of learning a language involves overcoming the fear of making mistakes when speaking," Morrow said. "In Mexico, I was forced to use the language, and I discovered I am capable of much more than what I give myself credit for in conversational settings. I am thankful for the confidence I gained from the trip as well as the opportunity to be a part of a vibrant culture along the way," she added.

Although she was very overwhelmed when she first arrived in Mexico City, one of the largest cities she had ever seen, Reed agreed when she said, she personally wanted to go to Mexico because "Spanish is my second major ,and I wanted to take the opportunity to improve my Spanish speaking skills and learn more about the Mexican culture."

Prior to taking the Monarchs in Mexico trip, many of the students were unaware of the Monarch migration patterns and were very surprised at how much they learned and what they experienced.

"I knew they migrated," Morrow said, "but I had no idea they gathered in the same area every year. The generation of butterflies that migrates to Mexico lives for approximately nine months compared to four weeks for other generations."

When Morrow saw a Monarch butterfly on campus later that spring, she was able to identify it as a probable offspring of the first generation of the butterflies she saw in Mexico.

The trip to Mexico not only included visiting the monarch sanctuaries, but also historic and tourist sites throughout the country.

When she first saw the sights, Morrow described the thoughts going through her head similar to, "Wow, I can't believe I'm here right now!" she said. "Every moment was so special to me because I never imagined myself going on such an adventure in my life."

When asked what it was like seeing the sites in Mexico, Morrow said, "the parts we traveled through were such beautiful, historical and vibrant settings."

She also enjoyed speaking with the people, visiting stunning architectural cities, and stopping by the "pastelería" to pick up sweets for the trip.

Learning about the Monarch butterfly and traveling to central Mexico was definitely an unforgettable experience, Morrow said. Describing her experience in one word, she concluded with "Inolvidable," Spanish for "unforgettable."

This article, by Emalee Pearson, originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2009 Issue of Today Magazine.