The Monarch Tag That Traveled Round Trip
by Elizabeth Howard

September, 2001
Last November, I found a monarch tag at the winter sanctuaries in Mexico. I just happened to see it under a huge cluster of butterflies. It was almost hidden in the thick vegetation beneath my feet. The tag had fallen from the wing of the butterfly and was lying on the ground. Imagine the chance! The tag rode all the way to Mexico on the wing of a butterfly and then fell off.

I carefully tucked the tag into my pocket, but I could hardly contain my excitement. Where had the butterfly come from? How far had it flown? Who tagged it?

Traveling home in the bus back to Mexico City, I bounced along for four hours. Winding around corners, and up and down mountain roads, I marveled that the monarch had found the mountain-top sanctuary all on its own.

During the long flight back to my home in Minnesota — traveling for six hours at jet speed — I thought about the tiny butterfly. Perhaps it flew over the same terrain and landmarks I could see below.

The jet engines roared powerfully. We were burning hundreds of gallons of fuel and humankind’s best technology was guiding us. The butterfly had traveled in the opposite way, slowly and soundlessly, guided by a mysterious and magnificent instinct, and powered by the sweet nectar of flowers.

When Monarch Watch checked their records, we found that the butterfly had been tagged the previous August by a man named Tom Murphy. To my great surprise, Tom lived in my own state of Minnesota, just an hour’s drive from my home! As the certificate told, the butterfly had traveled 1,768 miles from Minnesota to Mexico. It had probably flown the same path I watched from the plane’s window.

I was eager to meet the Murphys and kept meaning to contact them. But time passed and I forgot, until one day in early August…

I happened to see a story in the Minneapolis newspaper about an organic farmer in Cannon Falls, MN who was holding an open house inviting the public to tag monarch butterflies. The man’s name was Tom Murphy.

I decided to go and surprise him. I took the picture of myself in the sanctuary with their tag, and the tag itself. In the background they would see the exact trees to which their butterfly had flown from their farm in Minnesota.

There was a big crowd when I arrived but I recognized the Murphys immediately from the photo in the paper. People were standing in line to talk to Tom, with questions about monarchs, tagging, butterfly gardening, etc. I waited until my turn finally came. “I have a surprise for you,” I said. “I was in the monarch sanctuaries in Mexico last November and look what I found.”

I showed him the photo and the tag. As we looked at the Monarch Watch certificate that carried our two names, we realized that the butterfly had been tagged exactly one year earlier, to the day, August 17, 2001. The tag had traveled full circle, in time and in space.

Meanwhile, on that mid-August day in the Murphy’s backyard, monarchs were filling up on nectar, preparing for their own long journey to Mexico. Though the calendar said fall was coming, it still felt like summer to us and our minds argued otherwise. But in mid-August, monarchs know that the seasons are turning, as tag #AGB822 had proven.

This is where I found the tag. Click to see the vegetation underfoot.

Where did the butterfly come from?

Mexico City is about a 4 hour drive from the monarch sanctuaries. 

Discovery! I found where the monarch butterfly had been tagged. Click the certificate to read the surprise.

I made a surprise visit —and discovered another surprise in return. 
Tag # AGB 822
The tag that traveled round trip.

National Geography Standards

The World in Spatial Terms
How to use mental maps to organize information about people, places, and environments.