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Variation in wing characteristics of monarch butterflies during migration: Earlier migrants have redder and more elongated wings

Dara A. Satterfield
  • Odum School of Ecology, University of Georgia, Athens GA 30602
/ Andrew K. Davis
  • Corresponding author
  • Odum School of Ecology, University of Georgia, Athens GA 30602
  • Email:
Published Online: 2014-04-24 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.2478/ami-2014-0001


The migration of monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) in North America has a number of parallels with long-distance bird migration, including the fact that migratory populations of monarchs have larger and more elongated forewings than residents. These characteristics likely serve to optimize flight performance in monarchs, as they also do with birds. A question that has rarely been addressed thus far in birds or monarchs is if and how wing characteristics vary within a migration season. Individuals with superior flight performance should migrate quickly, and/or with minimal stopovers, and these individuals should be at the forefront of the migratory cohort. Conversely, individuals with poor flight performance and/or low endurance would be more likely to fall behind, and these would comprise the latest migrants. Here we examined how the wing morphology of migrating monarchs varies to determine if wing characteristics of early migrants differ from late migrants. We measured forewing area, elongation (length/width), and redness, which has been shown to predict flight endurance in monarchs. Based on a collection of 75 monarchs made one entire season (fall 2010), results showed that the earliest migrants (n = 20) in this cohort had significantly redder and more elongated forewings than the latest migrants (n = 17). There was also a non-significant tendency for early migrants to have larger forewing areas. These results suggest that the pace of migration in monarchs is at least partly dependent on the properties of their wings. Moreover, these data also raise a number of questions about the ultimate fate of monarchs that fall behind

Keywords: Monarch butterfly; Danaus plexippus; migration; wing morphology; wing color


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About the article

Received: 2013-11-18

Accepted: 2013-12-16

Published Online: 2014-04-24

Published in Print: 2014-01-01

Citation Information: Animal Migration, ISSN (Online) 2084-8838, DOI: https://doi.org/10.2478/ami-2014-0001. Export Citation

© 2014 Dara A. Satterfield, Andrew K. Davis. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 3.0 License. (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

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