One of the world’s largest butterflies is also one of the world’s most mysterious. For years, scientists have studied the flight paths and migration patterns of Monarch Butterflies, both fascinated and stumped at how accurate and tireless they seem. Finally, the mystery has been solved by scientists from the University of Massachusetts and the University of Washington.
The study was published in the journal Cell Reports, and focused on unlocking how Monarch butterflies navigated these huge distances in their annual migration. According to Tech Times, Professor Eli Shlizerman, professor at University of Washington, discussed how they developed a model circuit that imitated the internal compass of Monarchs as they traveled all the way from Canada to Mexico, each and every year. Shlizerman says that the neurobiological systems of these insects are amazing, and he wanted to figure what humans could learn from these systems.
Monarchs fly in what seems to be a highly efficient, if not predetermined, way. They are able to conserve their energy immensely, rarely stopping to rest, and they always seem to arrive to a specific spot in Mexico a mere 2 months later.
Scientists have always suspected that there was a relation between the Monarch’s antennae mechanism and the location of the sun in the sky. As if they followed some sort of molecular time keeping, the butterflies always flied southwest in the morning with the sun on their left, and in the same direction in the afternoon but with the sun on their right. Hence, Shlizerman’s model studies the influence of the sun on the butterfly’ internal clock. Shlizerman and his team developed a series of mathematical equations, based on the Monarch’s neural activity. They also observed the firing rates of neurons in the insect’s eyes and antennae. Furthermore, the final model was able to give a precise prediction of the Monarch’s flight path when the insect was placed in the simulation model.
Shlizerman says that this new model will be used in robotic butterflies to mimic the Monarch’s internal navigation. Then these robots will follow the butterflies on their annual migrations in order to monitor and hopefully maintain them. After all, their numbers are decreasing at a fast pace, and scientists hope to be able to keep them around for years to come.