Temperature and Survival
Back to Teacher Guide

Booklet/Slideshow Text
It's Cold in Mexico!
During the day it's usually warm at the monarch's winter home in Mexico, but at night it's as cold as the inside of your refrigerator! Sometimes it's even cold enough to snow. Most people are puzzled when they hear this. Why do monarchs migrate across the continent to spend the winter in a place that is cold?
As it happens, monarchs need cool temperatures to survive. Let's find out why, and let's see how the monarch's forest helps to protect them.

Cool temperatures help monarchs survive.
“Since monarchs are cold-blooded, they do not use much energy when they are in a cool environment,” says Dr. Karen Oberhauser.

Monarchs arrive in Mexico with fat (lipids) stored in their bodies. They eat very little, if anything, during the winter months. Because of the cool temperatures, the monarchs can burn their food reserves slowly.

Monarchs must not get too cold!
Monarchs save energy by living in a cool place, but there are also dangers. If temperatures are too cold, monarch butterflies can freeze to death. Wet, cold monarchs are in particular danger. Ice crystals can form and kill the butterfly.
Another danger: Paralyzed by cold!
Monarchs can't fly unless they can warm their muscles to 55°F. They can't even crawl below 41°F. The monarch pictured here can only crawl. It took one hour for this butterfly to crawl a few feet. Although monarchs can save energy when they are cold, the cold also makes them vulnerable.
When can temperatures be dangerously cold?
"January and early February is the coldest time of the season. This is a really critical time for the monarchs," says Dr. Lincoln Brower. "We know temperatures below -8°C will kill about 50% of the monarchs. However, if the butterflies are also WET, it will kill close to 80-90% of the monarchs."
Monarchs must not get too warm, either!
If temperatures are too warm during the winter, the butterflies will burn their stored fat too quickly. Like running out of gas, they won't have enough energy to survive the winter and migrate north in the spring. Monarchs store lipids in their abdomen. With practice, a person can tell the condition of a monarch.
7 The Forest Protects the Monarchs
Outside of the forest, the temperature can rise and fall sharply between day and night. Inside the forest, the temperatures don't change as much. Dr. Lincoln Brower often says the monarch's forest is like a blanket and an umbrella. It protects the monarchs from cold and moisture. If the forest is cut or thinned, he says, monarchs will not have the protection they need.
8 Visiting a Monarch Colony on a Cool Day
On a cool day you can see many ways cold temperatures affect monarch butterflies. For example, cold monarchs are clumsy when they try to fly. They often fall out of the air and land in funny places. This cold monarch landed on a mustache!
9 Monarchs Crawl to Safety After a Storm
If you visit a colony on a cold day you might see monarchs on the ground. Strong winds and heavy rain can blow monarchs down from their clusters. If the monarchs are cold, it may take hours — or even days — for them to return to the safety of the cluster. Slowly but surely, the monarchs pictured here are climbing back to the trees after being blown down by a storm.
10 Monarchs Can Survive a Snowstorm
It even snows occasionally in the colonies in Mexico. "If buried by snow, monarchs might stay on the ground under the snow for more than a week!" says Dr. Bill Calvert. Amazingly, many can survive a snowstorm if they can stay dry.
11 Monarchs Shiver to Warm Their Muscles
The most obvious thing you'd see on a cold day in a colony would be this: The forest floor would be alive with shivering monarchs. The butterflies move their wings so quickly they are blurry. You can even hear their wings as they flutter against nearby leaves. Monarchs shiver to warm their muscles. After shivering, monarchs can crawl and fly at temperatures that would otherwise be too cold.
12 Monarchs Avoid the Forest Floor—It's Dangerous!
On a cool day in a monarch sanctuary, you will always see monarchs climbing. They seem to climb on anything they can find. They climb to the top of sticks, twigs, and tiny trees like the one pictured here. Monarchs struggle very hard to get off the ground because the forest floor is a dangerous place. On the ground, monarchs are exposed to predators, dew, colder temperatures and even frost and snow.
13 How Are Temperatures Affecting Monarchs Today?
You can track real-time weather information at the monarch overwintering region in Mexico. Now that you know how temperature affects monarch butterflies, you can imagine exactly what's happening.

Link: Monitor the Climate of the Overwintering Regionhttp://www.learner.org/jnorth/tm/monarch/ClimateMonitorMonthly.html