DISCOVERED: THE MONARCHS MEXICAN HAVEN

national-geographicForty one years ago today, January 9th is celebrated as the day the Monarchs winter habitat was “discovered.” The woman who led the discovery, Catalina Aguado, was  born in Michoacán, the Mexican state that is home to the butterflies wintering grounds. Catalina is the only living member of the original team featured in the following 1976 National Geographic article.

Excerpt from “Discovered: The Monarchs Mexican Haven”

Doctor Fred Urquhart, the Canadian zoologist who had been studying and tracking the butterflies since 1937 writes the following:

“In our search for the overwintering place, years passed, years of frustration. Norah, late in 1972, wrote to newspapers in Mexico about our project, asking for volunteers to report sightings and to help with tagging.

In response came a letter, dated February 26, 1973, from Kenneth C. Brugger in Mexico City. “I read with interest,” he wrote, “your article on the monarch. It occurred to me that I might be of some help. . . .”

Ken Brugger proved the key that finally unlocked the mystery.

Traveling in his motor home with his dog, Kola, he crisscrossed the Mexican countryside. He searched especially in areas where tagged monarchs had been recaptured, and places where other visitors had reported numerous butterflies. “Go out in the evening,” we instructed him. “That’s when you’ll see the monarchs moving about looking for a place to roost.”

In a letter written in April 1974, Ken reported seeing many monarch butterflies in the Sierra Madre flying at random as if dispersing from a congregating site.

“Your data and observations are exciting,” I replied. “We feel that you have zeroed in on the right area.”

Ken Brugger doubled his field capability by marrying a bright and delightful Mexican, Cathy. Late in 1974 he wrote of finding many dead and tattered butterflies along the roads in a certain area. “You must be getting really close,” we responded. These butterfly remains suggested that birds had been feeding on large flocks of monarchs.

Swiftly came the dramatic conclusion. On the evening of January 9, 1975, Ken telephoned us from Mexico. “We have located the colony!” he said, unable to control the excitement in his voice. “We have found them—millions of monarchs—in evergreens beside a mountain clearing.”

Mexican woodcutters, prodding laden donkeys, had seen swarming butterflies and had helped point the way.”

The complete article is available to read online here.

4 thoughts on “DISCOVERED: THE MONARCHS MEXICAN HAVEN

  1. Carrie McLaughlin

    That Nat Geo cover is iconic! I remember receiving the issue just as I was packing to go to the University of Virginia for my first year. I took it with me, and it got excitedly passed around, and a professor got hold of my magazine, and it became lost to me forever! The truly unfortunate thing, however, was that the story was not accurately written. Catalina Aguado Brugger Trail was a field assistant, alongside Ken, from the very beginning. On a pleasure trip to Mexico, they saw the ad posted by Dr. Urquhart, and they both agreed it would be a great adventure to explore together. Catalina’s knowledge of the people and customs would be invaluable to the expeditions they took for the next three years. The local people were not very cooperative, and everyone they met denied any knowledge of a butterfly like that one. It was she who actually found the very first roosting site, along with her Mexican guide, and directed Ken to it. Dr. and Mrs. Urquhart helped pinpoint the region of Mexico in which to look because their extensive tagging program occasionally resulted in recoveries that led him to believe that many of them got at least that far into the country. And that proved to be true. Catalina is a gracious, educated woman with an MSW who resides in Austin, Texas. She was a speaker at our last pollinator conference in Kerrville- the Texas Pollinator PowWow http://www.texaspollinatorpowwow.org/, and her contact information can be found there. I hope this short anecdote inspires you and your followers to get in touch with Catalina. She is a sweet spirit who loves the truth and really glories in the natural world of God’s creation.

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    1. Kim Smith Post author

      Thank you so very much for writing Carrie. I think Catalina must be an incredible person and I have long wanted to meet her. I had the impression from reading accounts of the discovery that proper credit was not being given Catalina. Perhaps if I am so fortunate as to get my Monarch film released in the near future I will have the opportunity to meet her soon. Many thanks again for writing.

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  2. Beth @ PlantPostings

    It is fascinating, isn’t it? Sometimes I’m amazed at how recently this mystery was solved. It must have been so exciting to be studying Monarchs at the time, and even more exciting to be one of the people who made the discoveries about the migration and the overwintering location.

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    1. Kim Smith Post author

      I agree Beth, extraordinary dedication, and wonder, on the part of everyone involved. A fascinating time today too to be studying the Monarchs.

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