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The 3D IMAX movie, Flight of the Butterflies, answers many questions about monarch butterflies, such as: Where do monarchs go after leaving Canada in the fall?

Monarchs prior to migration from Canada
Monarchs prior to migration from Canada
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

An unresolved childhood question about the monarch migration route motivated Dr. Fred Urquhart, and his wife Norah, to spend 40 years researching the answers. The IMAX film documents his discovery of their overwintering sites in Mexico's Sierra Madre Mountains and the life cycle of monarch butterflies.

Butterfly migration

The giant screen movie shows viewers that the butterflies migrating to Canada are not the same butterflies that arrived in Mexico. Flight of the Butterflies 3D follows a monarch butterfly (scientific name: Danaus plexippus) through three generations.

The first flies from Texas to Canada to create a second generation of monarchs. A subsequent "super-generation" of butterflies makes the long fall migration to Mexico. After wintering in cool forests, at an altitude of 3,000 meters (10,000 feet), they make a spring migration to the US south, where they lay eggs on milkweed plants. (A small western group of monarchs winter in California butterfly sanctuaries.)

How long is the annual monarch butterfly migration route? With a round-trip length of 5,000 kilometers (3,100 miles), it is the longest insect migration in the world.

Flight speed

How fast do monarch butterflies fly? The strongest have a maximum flight speed of 19 kilometers (12 miles) per hour, but the majority travel at a slower pace. (Keep in mind that the weight of a monarch butterfly is less than a paper clip.)

Pair of monarch butterflies
Pair of monarch butterflies
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Normal butterflies live for about 24 days. How long does a monarch butterfly live? The super generation can live for nine months—12 times as long as regular butterflies.

This IMAX movie is not a boring educational film. It's filled with wonderful close-up images. The monarch butterflies that flutter off the giant screen, so close that you want to grasp them, are not animated.

"They're real butterflies in Mexican sanctuaries," says Wendy MacKeigan, executive VP at SK Films, co-writer and co-executive producer of the 3D movie.

Monarch sanctuaries

Where are the butterfly sanctuaries in Mexico? Most of them are in the State of Michoacan and the State of Mexico. UNESCO created the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in 2008. It includes sanctuaries in Zitacuaro, Ocampo, Aporo, Angangueo, Senguio and Contepac.

Monarch butterflies cluster on a tree branch.
Monarch butterflies cluster on a tree branch.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

You can visit the monarch reserves in Sierra Chincua and El Rosario, from Morelia, Mexico, as well as La Mesa and El Capulin in the State of Mexico. Rodrigo Esponda, director of the Mexican Tourism Board in Canada, notes that Rancho San Cayetano Hotel offers horseback tours to butterfly colonies in Zitacuero, Michoacan.

When is the best time to see butterflies in Mexico's monarch sanctuaries? You can visit them between November and March.

Sound of butterfly wings

The Flight of the Butterflies film documents what you see in Mexico's overwintering sanctuaries. Francisco Barrio, Mexico's Ambassador to Canada, describes the swirling masses of butterflies that cluster on the oyamel fir trees like autumn leaves.

"Millions and millions of living butterflies cover the trunks of trees like a second layer of bark—grey and still if the sun doesn't penetrate the shadows, but orange, brilliant and unbelievably restless when the sun breaks through the darkness."

In the IMAX movie, you can actually hear the sound of millions of tiny wings that break the silence of the forest. You can also see millions of dead and fallen butterflies carpeting the ground.

Volunteer to tag butterflies

In the 3D monarch movie, you see Dr. Fred Urquhart (played by actor, Gordon Pinsent) discover the tagged butterfly that confirmed it had migrated from the USA. The tag (a coded grocery store price-sticker that didn't hurt the butterfly or impair its flight) was attached to the butterfly by a volunteer.

Norah and Fred Urquhart recruited thousands of volunteer butterfly-taggers through their Insect Migration Association, which is called Monarch Watch today. The first Mexican volunteers were Catalina Aguado and her husband Ken Brugger.

National Geographic magazine documents the discovery of Mexican monarch butterfly sanctuaries by Dr. Fred Urquhart.
National Geographic magazine documents the discovery of Mexican monarch butterfly sanctuaries by Dr. Fred Urquhart.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

A story on the Monarch's Winter Home in the August 1976 issue of National Geographic shows Catalina Aguado on the cover, after she witnessed Dr. Urquhart's discovery of the butterfly tag.

Watching Flight of the Butterflies undoubtedly motivates you to travel to Mexico to see the monarch sanctuaries. Until then, you can learn how to tag monarch butterflies and where to buy butterfly tagging supplies from the Monarch Watch website.

The IMAX film also addresses conservation issues, such as the destruction of milkweeds, which are food for monarch butterfly larvae. (You can buy milkweed seeds and monarch butterfly-raising kits from Monarch Watch.) SK Films shares revenue from the movie with Mexico's largest conservation organization, Fondo Mexicano para la Conservacion de la Naturaleza.

Where can you see Flight of the Butterflies?

The monarch documentary film was shown in IMAX theaters in Canada, the USA, Mexico, Latin America, Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Pacific countries.

The movie provided more than 700 million viewers with information about monarch migration. They learned about the ecological importance and beauty of monarch butterflies and the urgent need to preserve their Mexican overwintering sanctuaries and their flyways through Canada, the USA and Mexico.


Flight of the Butterflies: www.flightofthebutterflies.com

Mexico Tourism Board: www.visitmexico.com

Monarch Watch: www.monarchwatch.org