Horses neigh, bugs crawl across the lens, and Monarchs flutter in the background —interview on the mountaintop and it was all beautiful! Video includes footage from my forthcoming film, Beauty on the Wing ~ Life Story of the Monarch Butterfly.
Monarch Migration Interview with Tom Emmel, filmed at the summit of the Sierra Chincua Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, Angangueo, Mexico.
This was Tom’s 40th trip to Angangueo to study the Monarchs. In this interview, he provides some historical perspective from those very first trips to the remote Oyamel fir forests atop the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Mountains. We learn how scientists count millions of Monarchs. Tom discusses the state of the Monarch migration today and why it is in crisis.
Tom Emmel is the Director of the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity at the Museum of Natural History of the University of Florida, Gainesville. Additional footage shot at El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Reserve and at the base of Sierra Chincua.
Our expedition to the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserves was led by Tom Emmel, Ph.D. Tom is the Directorof the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity, which is part of the University of Florida’s Museum of Natural History. He is also the university’s professor of zoology and entomology and the author of over 400 publications, including 35 books. Not only is Dr. Emmel a professor and director of the center, he leads expeditions to research biodiversity around the world, including recent trips to Bali to Komodo Island to study the Komodo Dragon (with a great story of how he and his fellow travelers very nearly almost became Komodo Dragon supper), the Galapagos Islands, and Madagascar.
This was Dr. Emmel’s fortieth trip to Angangueo to study the Monarch Butterfly migration. His first trip was in 1980 with Dr. Lincoln Brower who had, at the same time as Dr. Fred Urquhart, discovered the Monarch colonies in 1975. In those first early years of conducting research at the biospheres, Dr. Emmel and Dr. Brower traveled on old mining roads, rode horseback to the colonies, and camped in tents. Today, there are well-marked trails with options for either hiking or horseback riding.
On the second day of our expedition, I interviewed Dr. Emmel at the top of Sierra Chincua Monarch Colony. He was also interviewed by a Mexican television crew at the summit of the Sierra Chincua biosphere. I am in the process of editing the interview footage and will have that ready to post in the near future. Amongst the many aspects of the Monarch’s migration discussed during the interview, Dr. Emmel reveals exactly how one counts millions upon millions of Monarchs and offers several theories as to why the butterflies migrate to the very specific climate zone of the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt. We cover the subject of Monarch conservation and precisely how Monsanto’s GMO genetically modified Roundup Ready corn and sorghum, and Bt-corn, are indisputably deadly to the Monarchs. You’ll be surprised at the results of the research that was conducted on our journey in regard to the numbers of Monarchs counted in the biospheres.
This photo was taken early in the day, before the butterflies awaken in the sun.You can see that the limb of the Oyamel tree is so heavily laden with butterflies, it appears as though it will snap at any moment. And oftentimes, the limbs do break! The butterflies scatter and then regroup to another location.
Meeting Dr. Emmel and fellow expedition travelers was one of the most interesting and exciting aspects of the journey. You can’t imagine traveling with a more knowledgeable expert than Dr. Emmel. He is not only a world authority on all aspects of the Monarch’s migration, the history of the development of the biospheres, and the community of Angangueo, he also has extensive knowledge about a wide range of wildlife species and topics relative to biodiversity and the natural world. He shares the information generously and with a sense of humor, too.
Dr. Emmel’s assistants, brothers Ian and Craig Segebarth, are two of the brightest and most helpful young men you could hope to meet. Marie Emerson, who works in the development department at the museum was a joy and also super helpful, as was Josh Dickinson, who was traveling with his wonderfully fun granddaughter, 5th grader Zoie Dickinson. Josh Dickinson has spent a lifetime consulting on forestry management and he will be helping with forestry management at the Monarch biospheres. Josh also speaks Spanish very well and was tremendously helpful, especially when I locked myself out of my hotel room! Thanks again Josh for your kind assistance!
After the four-hour drive from Mexico City, across a wide canyon of rustic farmland and over and around volcanic mountains, we arrived in the early evening at the beautiful town of Angangueo. Pitched on a steep mountainside, the narrow streets and closely packed buildings with shared stucco walls immediately reminded me of southern European villages. Especially lovely were the modest and many handmade outdoor altars gracing townspeople’s homes and gardens.
Angangueo is located in the far eastern part of the state of Michoacán in the central region of Mexico within the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt. During the late 1700s minerals were discovered. Large deposits of silver, gold, copper, and iron ore brought a rush of people to the area. Today, Angangueo is noted as home to two of the most beautiful Monarch Butterfly Biospheres, El Rosario and Sierra Chincua.
Our guesthouse, the Hotel Don Bruno, was utterly charming. As with many of the buildings we passed on the way to Angangueo, a cheery row of glazed terra cotta pots brimming with red and pink geraniums lined the hotel entrance. Through the entryway door and past the front office, guests entered the beautiful inner courtyard garden. All the rooms faced into the courtyard and mine had a delightfully fragrant sunny yellow rose just outside the door. I quickly changed for dinner to meet my fellow travelers in the hotel’s second floor dining room. A long dining table arranged family style, running the length of the room, had been set up for our group, with a view onto the flowering courtyard below.
As he did that evening, and every dinner and breakfast, Chef Jean Gabriel Salazar López had prepared an elegant feast of many different entrees, mostly native Mexican dishes, including and combining a fabulous array of local fruits and vegetables. The proprietors and hotel staff could not have been more friendly and accommodating.
Dinner was followed by a discussion led by Dr. Emmel. Tom Emmel is the Director of the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity, which is part of the University of Florida’s Museum of Natural History. He is also a professor of zoology and entomology and the author of 35 books (more about Dr. Emmel in the next installment). I recorded several of Dr. Emmel’s lectures and an interview atop the Sierra Chincua Biosphere and will be posting all on youtube.
Mural in the town plaza
At daybreak the following morning, I climbed the central outdoor stairwell to the top of the hotel to film the sleepy town awakening. Roosters crowed and the hotel’s freshly washed and drying sheets whipped to the wind in the crisp mountain air. The morning light did not disappoint. Kitty corner across from my rooftop vantage point was one of the small town’s several churches, with a walled courtyard and red and white banners fluttering in the breeze. The village’s main road leads further up to the mountains and is lined with red tiled roofed-homes and sidewalks swept immaculately clean. The sun was just beginning to peek through the mountains when I had to leave to hurry down to breakfast.
Despite the beauty and well-kept appearance of Angangueo, and especially of our charming guesthouse, the town and the Hotel Don Bruno were nearly empty of tourists. Reports of mayhem and murder in Michoacán have drastically reduced the number of people traveling to Angangueo to see the Monarchs at the biospheres.
The gang violence is taking place on the far western side of Michoacán, near the Pacific Coast. Angangueo is located on the far eastern side of the state, bordering the state of Mexico. Not traveling to Angangueo for that reason is as uninformed as if someone decided not to travel to San Francisco because of the gang violence that takes place in Los Angeles! The people of Angangueo have stopped logging to protect the Monarch’s habitat and have come to rely heavily on income from tourism. I was deeply saddened to see the lack of visitors, at this time of year especially, when the Monarchs are at their peak activity at the colonies.
My new friends at the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity, located in Gainesville, Florida, forwarded this interesting video about the Giant Yucca Skipper. Watch Dr. Warren as he shows how to carefully extract the live larvae from the yucca plant stalk. Craig Segabarth, one of the awesome guides on our trip to the Monarch colonies, filmed and produced this fun episode of Bug Bytes.