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U of Cincinnati researchers study butterflies to better understand humans

University of Cincinnati researchers study butterflies to better understand humans. (WKRC)

UNIVERSITY HEIGHTS, Ohio (WKRC) - A team of researchers at the University of Cincinnati is studying the monarch butterfly's migration to Mexico. The biologists think the insects' flight south could offer insights into how our brains and senses process our surroundings.

Fall monarch butterflies will migrate to Mexico's oyamel fir forest toward the end of October and the beginning of November. They spend the winter there before flying back north in the spring. The butterflies end up in the same region of Mexico as their ancestors every year without ever having been there before themselves. Biologists think they're hardwired to find their way.

"What my lab focuses on is how monarchs have these compass mechanisms. For example, they have a time compass and a sun compass, so they can use the position of the sun in the sky in order to know which way to point south," says Patrick Guerra, Ph.D. He's a sensory ecologist and assistant professor at UC. His team has been stockpiling butterflies to release and study later this month.

Even though most of us humans aren't able to fly south to Mexico every winter, Guerra says what they learn from the butterflies can be applied to humans. "Half the things we do we take for granted, like we're driving, we're walking, but our brain is integrating all this information every time in order to do what we need to do."

Much like how humans' circadian clocks can be wrecked by too much exposure to light, the same could be true for butterflies.

The researchers are looking into how environmental factors might influence the butterflies' migration pattern, specifically how the factors could impact their circadian clocks. The insects' circadian clocks help them keep track of time in relation to the sun, which helps them find their way south. The biologists' hypothesis is that near-constant exposure to light could affect the insects' circadian clocks. Monarch butterflies in urban areas are exposed to more light than butterflies elsewhere. To test the theory, the research team has nine field sites: three in urban areas, three in suburban areas and three in rural areas.

"If you're living in downtown Cincinnati, or these monarchs are, there's going to be lots of lights. It might be enough to break their clock so that they can't navigate properly during the day," says Guerra.

When the team releases the butterflies, it'll analyze their flight path to see if the urban butterflies struggle to get their bearings. Even if they do struggle, all isn't lost.

"It only takes about five days for them to readjust. So, even if they're flying the wrong direction, like we release them, give them enough time and they'll be like, 'Oh, my clock's working again,' and they'll go back south," says Guerra.

The monarch butterfly population has declined over the last few decades. Researchers hope the more we learn about them, the better equipped we'll be to help boost the population.


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