Each year painted lady butterflies cross the Sahara — and then go back again | Science News

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Each year painted lady butterflies cross the Sahara — and then go back again

They migrate 12,000 km annually, the longest known butterfly migration route

7:00am, June 20, 2018
a painted lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui) resting on vegetation

GOING THE DISTANCE  Painted ladies travel 12,000 km each year, farther than any known butterfly migration.

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Move over, monarchs. The painted lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui) now boasts the farthest known butterfly migration.

Though found across the world, the orange-and-brown beauties that live in Southern Europe migrate into Africa each fall, crossing the Sahara on their journey (SN Online: 10/12/16). But what happened after was a mystery because the butterflies disappeared. Researchers hypothesized that the insects either remained in Africa or made a round-trip, but there was no evidence either way.

A new chemical analysis of butterfly wings suggests that the butterflies head back to Europe in the spring. The round-trip, which usually plays out over several generations, is an annual journey of 12,000 kilometers, about 2,000 more than successive generations of monarchs are known to travel in a year (SN: 4/14/18, p. 22).

Researchers were surprised when they detected chemical markers from Africa on some European butterflies’ wings. Those markers told where an individual had eaten when it was still a caterpillar. The study, reported in the June 13 Biology Letters, provides evidence that the creatures return from Africa each year. Some tenacious individuals even make the return trip in a single lifetime.


G. Talavera et al. Round-trip across the Sahara: Afrotropical Painted Lady butterflies recolonize the Mediterranean in early spring. Biology Letters. Published online June 13 2018. doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2018.0274.

Further Reading

S. Zielinski. Painted lady butterflies’ migration may take them across the Sahara. Science News Online, October 12, 2016.

A. Witze. Flying insects tell tales of long-distance migration. Science News. Vol 193, April 14, 2018, p. 22.

S. Milius. Long-ignored, high-flying arthropods could make up largest land migrations. Science News. Vol. 191, February 4, 2017, p. 12.

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