Where do Monarch Butterflies Go?

Maps require a combination of information architecture and zen. To protect Monarchs, it's essential that many different kinds of people understand their complex migration pattern. I designed this map to be understood by school kids who are observing monarchs as science projects, as well as to be used by scientists.

This has become the definitive map for depicting monarch butterfly migration. I keep it updated as new data comes in from scientists studying this complex pattern.

Originally scientists used two maps to show this complex pattern—one for Spring and one for Fall. I combined it into one map that would be simple, accurate, and give a picture of the whole in one look. The result of that process usually tends to also be attractive.

illustration of monarchMigration map 11 2 14 1024x868 Where do Monarch Butterflies Go?

Monarch butterfly annual migra­tion patterns. Updated November 2014.

Almost anyone can identify a monarch butterfly, even if they didn’t pay atten­tion in biology class. They are part of normal life. But how many people know they are endan­gered?

Common as milkweeds, we all notice them, and take as a fact of life that monarchs will show up every summer. Yet, there is more to this common insect than meets the eye, plus a lot of misin­for­ma­tion when you want to know more.

The questions add up fast. These creatures, weighing less than an ounce, may migrate 1500 miles back and forth every year to their over-wintering site. That’s 25–30 miles per day. Why do they go through all that trouble? And how do they know the way, when it’s the 3rd or 4th gener­a­tion that makes the trip back to southern Mexico after the summer breeding season in North America.

The monarch life cycle is so complex and almost unbeliev­able that few people under­stand how to explain it, but that’s exactly what we must do. Their fate now rests in how well we humans can commu­ni­cate and coöperate with each other to help them. Because due to changing weather patterns and habitat destruc­tion, the next gener­a­tion of humans, or maybe the next one, or the next after that, may never get to see one.

If you really want to know the truth about something, you’d go to someone who has spent their life studying it. For monarchs, that’s Dr Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, a monarch butterfly research and infor­ma­tion center that employes thousands of school kids every year to help track the numbers and their migra­tions.

Monarch Watch, based in Lawrence, Kansas, in the middle of it all, has evolved different maps of Monarch migra­tion patterns over the years. When I first designed a map for the National Park Service book, <i>Frequently Asked Questions about Butterflies</i>, a few years ago, they had it down to two black and white maps–one for spring and one for fall. I was sure that the data could be combined into one map and also made easier to under­stand for the grade-school butterfly-banders and almost any non-scien­tist.

In the Spring of 2010, after a disas­trous winter freeze in the monarch over-wintering grounds in the southern Mexico, Dr. Taylor called on me to redesign that map from the NPS book for a poster that they could distribute. The map still wasn’t quite right to him. We sent proofs back and forth for weeks before he was satis­fied that it was as correct as possible.

Information for the western North America is still coming in as tagged monarchs from one place are discov­ered thousands of miles away. Sometimes the data violates the theory. I am still updating this map—the version above was updated in November 2014.

That’s how science works–you never assume you know the whole story, and you will always be getting closer and closer to the truth, but never arrive.

I was happy to be involved with this project in many ways. I under­stand what’s known about monarch migra­tion now and I’ve helped hundreds of others to do the same.

I’ll never take anything in life for granted again, even the smallest. I can’t exactly explain why, but if the monarchs were gone, part of our collec­tive Homo sapiens soul would leave with them.

illustration of monarch migration map Where do Monarch Butterflies Go?

This was a version of the map I did for a book for the National Park Service called “Frequently Asked Questions about Butterflies.”



  1. Nathan Riggs
    September 24, 2014

    Dear Paul:

    I’m a water conser­va­tion program coördi­nator and I’m currently devel­oping a photo gallery on Monarch butter­flies on our landscape conser­va­tion website for the San Antonio Water System in Texas. May I please include this map in the photo gallery? We are a water utility and place a heavy emphasis on consumer educa­tion, not only for water conser­va­tion, but land steward­ship as well.

  2. Markus Blietz
    January 16, 2013

    Dear Paul,

    I would like to use this wonderful map of the monarch migra­tions in a Powerpoint presen­ta­tion about the wonder of butter­flies, which would be non-commer­cial, educa­tional only. I would also like to include this map in a DVD, which I want to make from my presen­taion, which then would be again given for free to inter­ested people.

    Do you allow me using your map this way?

    Wishing you all the best for your future life and work
    Markus Blietz

    Markus Blietz
    Wilhelmsederweg 10
    84529 Tittmoning


Leave a Reply