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March 2010 issue

Parks Canada: National Parks and National Historic Sites

Point Pelee National Park: The butterfly effect    (Page 1 of 4)
On the trail of the great monarch migration, nature’s small mysteries stole my attention
By Kate Barker with photography by Tobi Asmoucha

Point Pelee, a 20-square- kilometre finger of land that juts out into Lake Erie, is Canada's second smallest national park.
Photo: Tobi Asmoucha

STANDING AT THE SOUTHERNMOST TIP of mainland Canada, I feel like Moses about to part the Red Sea. Not that I’m religious, but there’s an otherworldly power to the roiling waters that collide here at Point Pelee National Park. This is land’s end, the prime jumping-off place for anything winged that heads south for winter. Lake Erie beckons, like a siren. It wants you to keep going, to ignore the obvious “Danger — no swimming” signs, to take that leap of faith.

Since migrating species naturally follow the curve of shoreline, and Point Pelee is where the shoreline runs out, this is just about the best place in the world to spot migrating peregrine falcons, mountain bluebirds, green darner dragonflies, or, in the fall, a million monarchs.
Canada’s second smallest national park — only St. Lawrence Islands is smaller — is a 20-square-kilometre finger of land jutting out into Lake Erie, some 53 kilometres north, as the monarch flies, of Sandusky, Ohio. It is the terminus of a flat and fertile swath of southwestern Ontario known chiefly for its superior tomatoes and for being surrounded by Americans. The park is also distinguished by five unique ecosystems. There are plants and animals here that cannot be observed anywhere else in the wild in Canada, including the prickly pear cactus and the Lake Erie water snake, which are only in the park and on nearby Pelee Island. The temperate Carolinian zone that defines the region represents less than a quarter of one percent of the total landmass of Canada, yet is home to more species than anywhere else in the country, including more than 50 species at risk, more than 70 species of trees, 20 species of reptiles and thousands of species of spiders and insects.

Click map to enlarge
Southwestern Ontario is in the flight path of plagues and invaders that spread north as the world warms. Lyme diseasebearing ticks were first found at Long Point, Ont., about 200 kilometres east of Pont Pelee, in the early 1990s and West Nile virus-infected birds dropped dead from the sky in the same part of the province a decade later. Today, fishermen fear that Asian carp, having breached electronic barriers near Chicago, will soon wreak havoc on native species in these waters. Since migrating species naturally follow the curve of the shoreline, and Point Pelee is where the shoreline runs out, this is also just about the best place in the world to spot migrating peregrine falcons, mountain bluebirds, green darner dragonflies, or, in the fall, a million monarchs.

Thirty-five years ago, the monarch migration was a complete mystery. We knew that the unmistakable black-and-orange king of the lepidopters, measuring up to 10 centimetres across, lived anywhere milkweed grows south of Hudson Bay in North America and travelled somewhere south to escape the killing frost. On January 2, 1975, American Kenneth Brugger made the greatest butterfly discovery of all time — hundreds of millions of monarchs roosting 3,000 metres above sea level in a remote oyamel fir forest 160 kilometres west of Mexico City. It would be another year before the grandfather of monarch research, the late Fred Urquhart, a zoologist at the University of Toronto, travelled to Mexico to observe a branch so weighted with butterflies that it broke and fell to the forest floor. Urquhart stooped to examine a casualty and recognized his own work. He had found one among millions that had been tagged in Minnesota, proving that these butterflies were indeed the eastern North American population of monarchs that he had spent a lifetime studying. (The western population, separated by the great divide of the Rockies, follows a different migratory path to northern California.) Mystery solved. Almost.


Monarchs have been around for 146 million years, breeding four generations annually. The spring and early-summer generations live as adults for 40 days; they eat, mate and die in the usual insect way. But something compels the late-summer/ early-fall generation to emerge from their chrysalises and fly south, more than 3,200 kilometres, where survivors live up to six times longer than other generations, sheltering in Mexican fir trees over the winter months before beginning the return flight. They mate and die along the route and a subsequent generation completes the final leg back north. No one knows for sure why monarchs migrate and what triggers the migratory instinct. The enigma endures. And now I am about to witness them in all their clustering glory before they make that momentous push south. One problem: there isn’t a single butterfly to be seen here at Monarch Central.


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Comments on this articleLeave a comment

This is a dream for teachers to connect with and teach. I was thrilled to see Ethan's picture displayed

Submitted by Mike Szymanski (Everglades, Florida) on Monday, February 22, 2010

What an engrossing story about Point Pelee and the amazing monarch butterfly!

Submitted by Donovan Thomas on Monday, February 22, 2010

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