The air is crisp in autumn. Daylight dwindles. Colors fade into soft shades of earth. Animals gather and store food. Southerners unpack chili recipes, sweaters and boots. Even without the calendar’s glaring reminder, the change of season is evident, and it signals an inexplicable inclination to prepare for colder months. But as October and the desire to roost set in, one creature in particular is busier than ever to get out. 

By the time cooler temperatures kiss the Gulf, the Eastern monarch butterfly is already halfway through its 2,500-mile journey, headed to a place it has never seen before. It’s this instinctual migration, from as far north as Canada to the isolated mountaintops of Mexico and back, that makes it one of the most studied insects. 

Of the roughly 17,500 butterfly species, the monarch is also among the most recognizable, with its orange-red wings laced with black lines and edges speckled with white dots. The distinctive colors draw attention from even the most wandering eye as it flutters among flowers and grasslands. To predators, such as birds, however, the bright hues serve as a warning: monarchs are poisonous, thanks to their diet of milkweed. These butterflies have evolved to tolerate the toxic wildflower and to use the toxins to their advantage. The defense is so clever that, over time, viceroy butterflies became monarch imposters. The viceroy is nearly identical — enough to avoid being eaten — but it differs in three ways: it is smaller than a monarch, has a horizontal black line running across its hind wing and does not migrate. 


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