Peering inside the BRAIN of a monarch butterfly reveals how an ‘internal compass’ helps it make epic migrations

Apr 19, 2016

Photo credit: David R. Weaver

By Ryan O’Hare

A threatened species of butterfly could be saved after scientists cracked the neurological secrets of how it finds its way.

Researchers believe they have discovered how the butterflies use an ‘internal compass’ to determine their south-west flight when they migrate each autumn.

Exactly how the butterfly’s brain processes information about its location and where they should fly has been poorly understood, but now it is hoped this discovery will help scientists understand how the insects navigate and locate their food.

Each autumn monarch butterflies head south from their North American habitats and migrate over 2,000 miles (3,220km) to the warmer wintering grounds of central Mexico.

Despite dwindling numbers due to loss of milkweed – their sole food source – this innate knowledge is still passed on to each generation as the insects beat their orange, black and white wings on their epic journey south.

In the latest study, researchers zeroed in on the insect’s brains to show exactly how the monarch’s navigate, using their ‘internal compass’.

By measuring the activity of the animals’ brain cells, and monitoring the rates at which cells in their antennae and eyes fired, they were able to model how the insects stay on track.


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