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Curr Biol. 2013 Mar 4;23(5):419-23. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2013.01.052. Epub 2013 Feb 21.

Coldness triggers northward flight in remigrant monarch butterflies.

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Department of Neurobiology, University of Massachusetts Medical School, 364 Plantation Street, Worcester, MA 01605, USA.


Each fall, eastern North American monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) migrate from their northern range to their overwintering grounds in central Mexico. Fall migrants are in reproductive diapause, and they use a time-compensated sun compass to navigate during the long journey south. Eye-sensed directional cues from the daylight sky (e.g., the horizontal or azimuthal position of the sun) are integrated in the sun compass in the midbrain central complex region. Sun compass output is time compensated by circadian clocks in the antennae so that fall migrants can maintain a fixed flight direction south. In the spring, the same migrants remigrate northward to the southern United States to initiate the northern leg of the migration cycle. Here we show that spring remigrants also use an antenna-dependent time-compensated sun compass to direct their northward flight. Remarkably, fall migrants prematurely exposed to overwintering-like coldness reverse their flight orientation to the north. The temperature microenvironment at the overwintering site is essential for successful completion of the migration cycle, because without cold exposure, aged migrants continue to orient south. Our discovery that coldness triggers the northward flight direction in spring remigrants solves one of the long-standing mysteries of the monarch migration.

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