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Butterfly Navigation

It's still sometimes difficult to get to grips with the idea that the delicate Butterflies that we see in our gardens and parks every summer have migrated vast distances, often from as far as Morocco. How on earth do they manage it?

Brett spoke to Jason Chapman, a scientist that has been studying this year’s migrating Painted Lady Butterflies.

Painted Lady Butterfly by Robert Thompson

How do Painted Lady Butterflies navigate?

From Gibraltar, Jason Chapman explains all.

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Jason Chapman and other scientists from Rothamsted Research Institute have been positioned on Gibraltar looking out for the streams of Butterflies heading north. Millions of butterflies funnel up into Europe over the Strait of Gibraltar, taking advantage of the shortest sea crossing from Africa.

Previous research into Butterfly navigation has concluded that Monarch Butterflies have a "true sun compass mechanism". Broadly speaking, this means that Monarch Butterflies are able to navigate using the sun and have an in-built clock that allows them to compensate for the position of the sun in the sky depending on the time of day. As a result, Monarchs are able to fly in a straight line to a specific site instead of flying in a curve, as they follow the sun's movement from east to west across the sky.

In order to discover how Painted Ladies navigate, the team have set up flight simulators and it seems Painted Ladies are also dependent on the sun for navigation, but it is not certain whether they have the in-built clocks that the Monarchs appear to have. Monarchs need to migrate to a very specific site whereas Painted Ladies just migrate north and south so Jason believes the Painted Ladies have a general "non-specific compass mechanism".

Despite these revelations, it's still difficult not to be amazed by the achievements of these delicate creatures!

Remember, we are running a survey with Butterfly Conservation to see if Painted Ladies really are coming to the UK in larger numbers. We want you to show us where they are - just peg your location on Butterfly Conservation's online map.

Further Reading:

Next report: WOTM looks for mating Painted Ladies
Last report: Have you seen a Painted Lady - let us know here

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