Crowning a Top Globetrotting Butterfly

Professor Clément Bataille, wearing a light blue shirt and dark plus pants, is outdoors, standing in front of a concrete staircase

Professor Clément Bataille

Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences

Until recently, the Danaus plexippus, better known as the Monarch butterfly, held the record for the longest butterfly migration. However, Professor Clément Bataille and his colleague Gerard Talavera at the Institut de Biologia Evolutiva have proven that another butterfly species—the Vanessa cardui, also known as the Painted Lady—travels further: its migratory route covers 12,000 km over several generations. The Royal Society published this discovery in its science journal, Biology Letters.

Professor Bataille is a geochemist who ended up studying butterflies purely by chance: he discovered that the chemical tracers he was using to study water and rocks could be used to study migratory animals. Before they become butterflies, caterpillars feed on plants that absorb water and soil from their environment. Bataille demonstrated that the chemical profile of the water and soil in which a plant grows is reflected in a specific chemical signature, which is incorporated into the caterpillars’ bodies and then integrated into the butterflies’ wings, making it possible to trace where the caterpillar/butterfly was born.

Enter the Painted Lady. The researchers discovered that it migrates further than any other species of butterfly. It can be found throughout Europe, Asia, Africa, North America, and Central America, with a limited range in South America and Australia. Professor Bataille’s research has also shown that Painted Lady butterflies born in tropical Africa follow a regular migratory pattern to travel to Europe in the spring. His team is now planning a large-scale study on the routes these butterflies take in order to learn how their sources and destinations change in response to precipitation patterns and food availability.

In future, Professor Bataille’s research team intends to identify specific areas where these migratory butterflies are most likely to reproduce, so that researchers can better understand their migratory cycles and focus their conservation efforts.

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