Threatened by habitat destruction and climate change, scientists say the migratory monarch butterfly is one step closer to extinction, placing it on the endangered species list.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature added the migratory monarch butterfly to its “red list,” meaning it is now at risk of extinction. The IUCN Red List now includes 147,517 species, of which 41,459 are threatened with extinction.
“Today’s Red List update highlights the fragility of nature’s wonders, such as the unique spectacle of monarch butterflies migrating across thousands of kilometers,” said Dr. Bruno Oberle, director general of the IUCN. “To preserve the rich diversity of nature we need effective, fairly governed, protected, and conserved areas, alongside decisive action to tackle climate change and restore ecosystems. In turn, conserving biodiversity supports communities by providing essential services such as food, water, and sustainable jobs.”
Reasons For Risk Of Extinction
The monarch butterfly population has shrunk between 22 and 72 percent over the past decade.
Scientists at IUCN say legal and illegal logging and deforestation to make space for agriculture and urban development has destroyed significant areas of the butterflies’ winter shelter in Mexico and California. Pesticides and herbicides used in agriculture kill butterflies and milkweed, which is the host plant that the larvae of the monarch butterfly feed on.
Climate change is another factor playing into its risk of extinction. Drought limits the growth of milkweed and increases the number of catastrophic wildfires. Temperature extremes trigger earlier migrations before the milkweed is available. Severe weather has killed millions of butterflies.
The IUCN says the western population is at the greatest risk of extinction, having declined about 99.9 percent — from as many as 10 million butterflies to 1,914 between the 1980s and 2021. The larger eastern population has shrunk by 84 percent from 1996 to 2014.
Non-migratory monarch butterflies in Central and South America were not designated as endangered.
The United States has not listed monarch butterflies under the Endangered Species Act, but several environmental groups believe it should be listed.
The Monarch Butterfly
The endangered migratory monarch butterfly is a subspecies of the monarch butterfly. It’s known for its spectacular annual migration journey of up 2,800 miles from Mexico and California in the winter to summer breeding grounds throughout the United States and Canada. It’s the longest migration of any insect species known to science.
It’s known by scientists as Danaus plexippus, which in Greek means “sleepy transformation.” The name speaks to the species ability to hibernate and metamorphize. Adult butterflies have two pairs of brilliant orange-red wings with black veins and white spots. Males, which have black dots on their wings, are slightly larger than the females. Each only lives about 4–5 weeks.
“It is difficult to watch monarch butterflies and their extraordinary migration teeter on the edge of collapse, but there are signs of hope. So many people and organizations have come together to try and protect this butterfly and its habitats. From planting native milkweed and reducing pesticide use to supporting the protection of overwintering sites and contributing to community science, we all have a role to play in making sure this iconic insect makes a full recovery,” said Anna Walker, species survival officer at the New Mexico BioPark Society, member of the IUCN SSC Butterfly and Moth Specialist Group, and leader of the monarch butterfly assessment.
How You Can Help
There are things you can do to help the population. You can plant milkweed, a plant that caterpillars depend on. Don’t use pesticides in your home gardens. Create a monarch way-station which allows the butterflies to lay their eggs. Buy FSC-certified wood to ensure they have a place to return since illegal logging is destroying their habitats.
You can also visit Save Our Monarchs. The non-profit was established to bring back the monarch butterfly population. It has lots of information on how you can help.
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