The Butterfly Effect

Butterfly Effect: Monarchs Raised and Released by Prisoners Solves Mystery of Migration Patterns

By Jessica Wapner On 7/12/18 at 11:49 AM

Floris van Breugel/Nature Picture Library

 In what may be the most poetic scientific study ever conducted, dozens of men at a maximum-security prison in Washington state helped uncover migration patterns of West Coast monarch butterflies. The inmates raised and released thousands of the insects over several years so experts could track their long-mysterious flight: a 500-mile journey from the Pacific Northwest to California.

For years, David James, who studies insects at Washington State University, had wanted to examine the migration patterns of West Coast monarchs. The famous route taken by their East Coast counterparts from New York to Mexico had no known Pacific equivalent because the populations are too small to follow. For every 200 butterflies tagged by a researcher, only one is usually recovered at the end of its trip, James says, and finding even 200 in the wild to tag was unlikely. Knowing the route is vital to conservation efforts, but James had no way to figure it out—until he got a phone call from Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla…