The Incredible Journey of the Butterflies

The Incredible Journey of the Butterflies

2009, Nature  -   27 Comments
Ratings: 8.78/10 from 59 users.

Orange-and-black wings fill the sky as NOVA charts one of nature's most remarkable phenomena: the epic migration of monarch butterflies across North America. NOVA's filmmakers followed monarchs on the wing throughout their extraordinary odyssey.

To capture a butterfly's point of view, camera operators used a helicopter, ultralight, and hot-air balloon for aerial views along the butterflies' transcontinental route. (Learn more about the production techniques and adventure of traveling with the monarchs in an interview with Director Nick de Pencier.)

The film opens with caterpillars munching milkweed in southern Canada in late summer. Soon each caterpillar transforms itself into a silky chrysalis. Roughly 10 days later, a delicate four-winged monarch emerges.

Then, at some unknown signal, the monarchs take to the air on a two-month, 2,000-mile flight over fields, forests, cities, plains, open water, deserts, and finally mountains to congregate in a tiny, high-altitude region of central Mexico where they've never been before. Incredibly, they arrive by the millions at the same time each year.

Shedding light on this natural wonder are some of the world's leading monarch researchers, including Lincoln Brower of Sweet Briar College, independent biologist Bill Calvert, and Orley "Chip" Taylor of the University of Kansas.

Putting the monarch phenomenon into perspective, Taylor says, "You've got a butterfly that's originating in Toronto, or it's originating in Detroit, Michigan, or it's coming down from St. Paul or maybe even Winnipeg, and it's moving south. Somehow it finds its way to Mexico. Could you do that?"

Directed by: Nick de Pencier

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27 Comments / User Reviews

  1. CJS

    I've watched this documentary often and just watched it again. Love hearing about/seeing the monarchs. Amazing. I could do without the "singing" that many nature documentaries feel compelled to add for "drama", but even that doesn't really detract from the monarchs' story. Would love to see that 4th generation come in for landing in Mexico.

  2. Stephanie Davis

    Fantastic creatures and views! Very informative and great for all ages. Monarchs come in three generations - some live for just a few months while the long distant travelers live for many more months - man and mother nature willing.

  3. Rana

    really magnificent! I enjoyed learning about this beautiful stunning creature. Thanks for uploading

  4. qzqzqz

    butterflies cross the seas! wow,who knew!
    fantastic,beautifully filmed extraordinary .

  5. Ferdyindrasetiawan

    good whatch, I'm very interesting about butterfly. is incredible cretures

  6. Aaylsworth

    Very good, but no mention of the milkweed...

  7. Arnold Vinette

    Thanks Vlatko I enjoyed this nature documentary on the Monarch Butterflies. I will have to read the book "Presence of the Past" to better understand the phenomena of butterfly migration and instinctual behavior of animals in general. It sounds like it would make a good documentary in and of itself.

    With regards to the show the HD filming was beautiful. The Mexican scenery was stunning. Unfortunate about the logging in the forest but this is happening everywhere as man expands and is very difficult to stop.

    The comment that the Monarch Butterfly is not designed well for long duration flight made me laugh. Don't tell the Monarch Butterflies who have been migrating 2,000 miles for thousands of years that they have a bad design. Joke! This is like telling the bumble bees that they should not be able to fly. Nature has tested the Monarch Butterfly design throughly and found it to be quite satisfactory.

    All in all a very educational story and very interesting on the migration habits of the Monarch Butterfly. First in its three year migration North up to Canada, and then the single trip back to Mexico in its fourth year.

    It really makes you wonder how these types of migrations started and evolved to what they are today. It is very interesting how Mexico has become the center point for gathering in the fourth year.

    There is another gathering point in the the United States and it is in Santa Cruz California. A mild climate and very large Redwood trees are apparently the same type of draw. The large Redwood trees help keep the Monarch Butterflies warm during the winter. The coastal location is very temperate.

    Arnold Vinette
    Ottawa, Canada

  8. toddy

    astounding doc. Seen it before and liked enough to watch it again.

  9. quark22

    to understand the phenomena of butterfly migration and the instinctual behavior of animals in general i recommend reading Rupert Sheldrakes' 'Presence of the Past'..this book changed my way of thinking..:)

  10. Guest

    Have you seen The Blue Butterfly movie? With some of my fav actors William Hurt and Pascale Bussieres (our best french canadian). A kid movie but a great one. I didn't know Hurt could speak french fluently, i fell in love!

    1. Gwayne Li

      impersonating the good ol' Georges Brassard? Haven't seen the movie, but Georges is quite someone haha

  11. Kai Vogt Westling

    Thanks for this wonderful film. It reminds me of the great mystery and the love that makes life possible and that I am still part of it. It awakens my heart thanks again

  12. Kai Vogt Westling

    Thanks for this great film a marvellous reminder of our great life and the mystery and love that makes it possible. We are still part of this wonderful event and these butterflies reminds me of my heart! Tanks again
    /Kai the old swede

  13. Guest

    Like a butterfly i was flapping my wings out of what a surprise to see how this site has changed...Congratulation Vlatko!
    I travelled through Mexico and Guatemala for 4 months last winter and spend two weeks in Morelia, i missed the butterfly in Patzcuaro...i still regret...specially now!
    thanks for this great doc

  14. Guest

    Wow! like a butterfly i was flapping my wings out of town for a while...Vlatko, i want to congratulate you on the new look. This site was already great...but you brought it up a notch higher!
    I got a lot of catching up to do.Thank you for all your efforts!

  15. Chih Seng Simon Ho

    why is this still a mystery

  16. stockportsfinest

    When they say that they are a bad design for flight,I have to disagree.
    they are a perfect design for getting the most from fermal's.
    great doc though.
    An amazing creature

    1. Roz Kidd

      But that's gliding not flying

    2. stockportsfinest

      gliding is a form of flying,getting from a to b in flight

    3. Gwayne Li

      ''It's falling! with Style!'' -Buzz Lightyear

  17. Vlatko

    Yes, monarchs are magnificent creatures indeed.

  18. tdot88

    Got so much more respect for monarchs now lol. Great doc, with nice footage. I wonder why they would go all the way up to Canada, only to travel back to Mexico.. doesn't make sense, they might as well stayed in Mexico?? And do other species of butterflies have migrations, or only the monarch?

    1. Gwayne Li

      Hey : ), I have some insight for that: Theory is that during the last Ice Age, where most of N-America has been under Ice, the only variety of food the Caterpillar of the Monarch eats (The milkweed: Asclepias sp.) are found around Mexico. As the temperature grew hotter and the Ice sheet melted, the Host Plant of the butterfly spread northward progressively all the way to Canada. The butterfly, in it's search to lay eggs on fresh plants, followed the spread of their host plant all the way to the north.

      (Also note that one particular habit of the Monarch is that each female only lays 1 egg per plant, no more, so that the caterpillar might have enough food to grow to maturity.)

      However, the further they went, the colder it became in automn and they couldn't survive winter. How the butterflies actually did develop the sens of coming back to Mexico each winter is still beyond my knowledge for now. But I hope it answers a bit of your questions.

      And if someone does have more info, please inform us !

  19. Eupackardia


    As a guy working in an insect house/farm at summer, This is a good suggestion for fellow visitors!

    This site is awesome, Thks again!

    1. Jack1952

      What is an insect farm?

    2. Gwayne Li

      (hey this is Eupackardia posting through my Facebook account)

      It's kind of a modest insectarium, but with living insects instead of the usual dead ones on display. And we have a butterfly house as well. And we rear local butterflies and caterpillars in vivariums for visitors to see. Monarchs are amongst them :).

    3. Guest

      Dwayne do you work at the insectarium in Montreal? very very cool place. I see they are closed for renovation...should be interesting to re-visit. Do they still have the restaurant where they serve the bugs? I don't see that on the website...may be
      there was opposition to eating the bugs after seeing their beauty or ugliness or slimyness. Although bugs are known to supply huge amount of protein by size eaten and are very popular in the markets of Central and South America, Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Australia.
      Nothing like a good ol cricket or grasshoper! Thailand is one known place where people experience this delicacy for the first time.