Quiz: New Butterfly or Old?
Watching the Wings for Clues

Butterfly wings become worn and faded over time. Therefore, the condition of a butterfly's wings is a clue to its age. Each spring we ask observers to look carefully at the condition of a monarch's wings. Here are some examples of what this can indicate about monarchs:

  • By the month of March, monarchs that have over-wintered in Mexico are about 7 months old. We expect their wings to be very worn, tattered and faded.
  • All monarchs do not go to Mexico for the winter. For example, many years some are present in Texas and breed, especially along the Gulf Coast. When these monarchs produce offspring, the young butterflies have fresh, new wings.
  • Breeding butterflies only live for a few weeks. Their wings typically do not have time to get as old, torn, and faded as those that over-winter in Mexico.
  • Most monarchs that over-winter in Mexico are dead by the end of April. Fresh new butterflies — children of those that overwintered in Mexicocontinue the journey north.

Wing-Condition Quiz
Using a technique developed by Dr. Karen Oberhauser and Dr. Bill Calvert, you can estimate how old and worn a monarch is.
The three monarchs below were captured in Texas in the spring in the Aschen family's backyard. They show monarchs at various stages of wing-wear.

#1 #2 #3
  • Read the descriptions of wing conditions (indicated by "fade value") below. Which description do you think matches monarchs #1, #2, and #3?
  • Click to enlarge the image for a closer look.
  • Try your skill, then check the answers.
Wing Fade Value = 0 Wing Fade Value = 2 Wing Fade Value = 4
New, recently emerged. No holes, no tattering, but beginning to have missing scales to cause fade. Very faded, some tattering and holes. Orange beginning to turn gray, black just beginning to turn charcoal, but not yet transparent or "ghostly".

Journaling Questions
  • Which butterfly do you think could be from Mexico?
  • Which might be a young butterfly from Texas?
  • If you saw a torn and tattered monarch in Oklahoma on April 1st, where would you think it came from?
  • What happens to a monarch to make its wings fade and are damaged over time? What things might touch their wings? How might the sun and weather affect them? Write a short story and describe the misadventures in the day-to-day life of a butterfly.

Education Standards