A farewell to kings? New ideas on the vanishing monarch butterflies

Enlarge (credit: US Fish and Wildlife)

Everybody loves monarch butterflies. Author Anurag Agrawal refers to them as “the Bambi of the insect world.” They are specifically bred to be released at weddings; their image has been pressed into service as the symbol of environmental organizations like the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Non-GMO project.

This popularity makes them a great research system for two reasons. First, funding is abundant and easy to drum up. And, unlike other darlings of conservationists—like polar bears, which look like cute, cuddly stuffed animals—monarch butterflies are bugs. So animal rights activists don’t really get worked up when scientists breed them and experiment on them, then sacrifice them and grind up their bodies for analysis.

Regular donations and a lack of harassment from PETA, however convenient though they may be, are hardly the only reasons why Agrawal has devoted his life to studying monarchs or why he has written a book about them called Monarchs and Milkweed: A Migrating Butterfly, a Poisonous Plant, and Their Remarkable Story of Coevolution. Monarches and their sole food source, the toxic milkweed plant, provide a great example of coevolution.

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