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September 26, 2009, 7:42 pm

GPS in butterflies

Birds have a way of knowing where to fly to for winter, but how do butterflies navigate long distances? The answer may surprise you!

[BBC News]

What was discovered?

Monarch butterflies use a 24 hour "clock" in their antennae to help them fly all the way to Mexico, a distance of around 4,000 km 

The clock allows the insects to navigate according to the position of the sun, which of course changes throughout the day.

The big surprise was that this 'circadian' clock to compensate for the moving of the sun was not in the brain of the butterflies, but in their antennae, and can work independently of the brain!

How was it discovered?

The antennae of many Monarch butterflies were painted:

some with black paint - these butterflies all flew together but in the wrong direction!

others with transparent paint (the control group) - these butterflies flew the right way!

Why is it important?

Understanding butterfly navigation systems may also help us to understand how other organisms navigate long distances - this could have important implications for controlling pest species, as well as simply understanding how insects work!

But perhaps more importantly, understanding how genes (sequences of DNA) control the working of the butterfly clock might help us understand our own circadian clock, which is very similar and is found in the suprachiasmatic nucleus of the hypothalamus... that is, in our brain!  


For fun with butterflies that remind you of your summers as a child - take a look here!