Wanderer or Monarch butterfly

by Patrick
Publish date
8 March 2013
Comments (7)

The Wanderer Butterfly is known overseas as the Monarch Butterfly, so named for being the King, or Queen, of butterflies. In North America they are also known as King Billies, after William of Orange. The Australian name of Wanderer comes from its remarkable habit of long distance migration. The scientific name Danaus plexippus was bestowed by Carolus Linnaeus, the father of taxonomy and inventor of the scientific naming system.

Adult female Wanderer Butterfly Adult female Wanderer Butterfly
Source: Patrick Honan

Although not a native to Australia, the Wanderer may not exactly be introduced in the usual sense. Wanderer Butterflies most likely arrived in Australia across the Coral Sea from Vanuatu or New Caledonia, carried by three cyclones in early 1870. This was part of a major expansion in distribution across the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans from North America in the late 1800s, probably due to a combination of environmental factors, human movement and natural expansion.

Wanderer butterfly feeding An adult Wanderer Butterfly feeding on Cat's Whiskers (Orthopsiphon aristatus).
Source: Patrick Honan

The first recorded observations from Australia were made in February 1871 in Queensland, followed by the first record from Melbourne in April 1872. It is possible that Wanderers had been making the journey to Australia since time immemorial, but only after Europeans established their food plants here could Wanderers establish.

Wanderer caterpillar The distinctive fleshy 'filaments' behind the head of the caterpillar are used as sensory organs.
Source: Patrick Honan

Wanderers have been seen at sea up to 500km from land and occasionally settle on passing ships. This is not unusual – with favourable winds, Australian butterflies such as Common Eggflies often end up in New Zealand. Wanderers have a cruising speed of about 30km per hour with bursts of up to 50km per hour when alarmed.

Wanderer Butterfly pupa. The wings of the adult can be seen through the walls of a Wanderer Butterfly pupa.
Source: Patrick Honan

In North America, Wanderers undertake a famous annual migration from Canada and northern USA down to Mexico and California, and then back again. The populations overwintering in the Oyamel Fir Forests of Mexico roost at densities of 10 million butterflies per hectare. Because the length of time required for the migration exceeds that of an adult Wanderer's life span, those arriving back in Canada are the descendents of those that left the year before.

Map of butterfly migration Map of the North American migration of the Monarch or Wanderer butterfly that occurs each year in autumn.
Source: Via the Frost Lab, Queen's University Department of Psychology

The secrets of the Wanderer migration in North America weren't fully revealed until the 1970s. Canadian Dr Fred Urquhart was fascinated as a child by the question of where all the Wanderers disappeared to during winter, and he and his team of volunteers took nearly 40 years to discover the answer. Professor Urquhart died in 2002 but his life-long search is the subject of the new film Flight of the Butterflies 3D. In Australia, Dr Courtenay Smithers from the Australian Museum began tagging Wanderer Butterflies in the 1970s using many volunteers from the broader community. His studies revealed that overwintering populations around Sydney and Adelaide move into Melbourne and surrounds during summer. This research continues, with many questions still to be answered. In certain years, for example, populations appear to overwinter in some parts of Victoria, such as Phillip Island and the Western Districts, without needing to move interstate, but more data is needed to confirm these observations.

Flight of the Butterflies 3D opens at IMAX Melbourne Museum on 21 March. 

Patrick's next post on these butterflies: More on the Monarch


Clake, A.R. & Zalucki, M.P., 2004. Monarchs in Australia: On the Winds of A Storm? Biological Invasions, 6:123-127

McCubbin, C., 1970, Australian Butterflies, Thomas Nelson Ltd, Melbourne, 206pp.

Comments (7)

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Simon 8 March, 2013 16:26
Great article Patrick, love the idea of an alarmed Wanderer roaring off at 50km per hour.
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Andrew 12 March, 2013 10:05
Really good blog post Patrick. Thanks for that.
Dave 12 September, 2013 21:29
Is there a Monarch tagging program operating nt the moment. (Sept 2013) I have some breeding at the moment in Armidale NSW, would be great to be involved in some tagging and moitoring.
Discovery Centre 16 September, 2013 13:19

Hi Dave, we checked with Patrick on this, and his reply is as follows:

Dr Courtenay Smithers at the Australian Museum initiated a tagging program in the 1970s, which gave some idea of Wanderer (or Monarch) butterfly migrations in Australia. This program petered out in the 1980s and sadly Dr Smithers passed away in 2011. There has been much talk about reinstating a similar program in recent years, but to our knowledge no such program is currently active.

Stuart Forbes 27 December, 2013 17:20
Migration of Monarch/Wanderer butterflies seems to be happening at the moment at Wensleydale half way between Winchelsea and Aireys Inlet about 40kms West of Geelong. This happens most years at this time for a couple of weeks. Several years ago they were all over the roads, all through the bush, everywhere. I saw them one year all clustered on the trees in warm still areas in the bush, the same as you see in the famous Central American migration photos. Email me if you need or have any more info. Thank you. Hoo Roo from Stu
Elaine ( from WA) 3 January, 2014 16:27
Are these butterflies the same as Danaus archippus? I collected larvae from the Swan plant, put them inside and my grandchildren watched them go into pupation and emerge as butterflies. We let them fly out through the window.
Discovery Centre 6 January, 2014 14:34

Hi Elaine,

The Lesser Wanderer (Danaus chrysippus) is a different species to the Wanderer (Danaus plexippus), but the larvae of both species are often found together on the same host plants (Swan Plants, or Milkweed). Unlike the Wanderer, which has a more restricted distribution, the Lesser Wanderer is found all across Australia in a great variety of habitats.

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