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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1998 Dec 22;95(26):15436-9.

Natal origins of migratory monarch butterflies at wintering colonies in Mexico: new isotopic evidence.

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  • 1Environment Canada, 11 Innovation Boulevard, Saskatoon, SK, Canada, S7N 3H5.


Each year, millions of monarch butterflies from eastern North America migrate to overwinter in 10-13 discrete colonies located in the Oyamel forests of central Mexico. For decades efforts to track monarch migration have relied on observations and tag-recapture methods, culminating with the discovery of the wintering colonies in 1975. Monarch tag returns from Mexico, however, are few and primarily from two accessible colonies, and therefore tag-recapture techniques have not quantified natal origins or distinctiveness among monarch populations at wintering sites. Such information would be invaluable in the conservation of the monarch and its migration phenomenon since the wintering sites currently are threatened by habitat alteration. Here we show that stable hydrogen (deltaD) and carbon (delta13C) isotope ratios of wintering monarchs can be used to evaluate natal origins on the summer breeding range. Stable-hydrogen and carbon isotopic values of 597 wintering monarchs from 13 wintering roost sites were compared with isotopic patterns measured in individuals at natal sites across their breeding range over a single migration cycle. We determined that all monarch wintering colonies were composed of individuals originating mainly from the Midwest, United States, thereby providing evidence for a panmictic model of wintering colony composition. However, two colonies showed more northerly origins, suggesting possible priority colonies for conservation efforts.

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