Butterfly effect: Local man follows Monarchs from Maine to Mexico

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SCARBOROUGH — Harry Pringle will be the first to tell you he’s not a scientist. He just loves Monarch butterflies.

“I noticed they fly differently than other butterflies. It’s a stronger, more purposeful flight,” Pringle said, describing the Monarchs that take over his yard on Little Diamond Island every summer.

Pringle was so interested in the flight of these butterflies, that he decided to follow them in their migration, from a small island in Maine, to a gathering place on Cape May in New Jersey, all the way to the high-altitude forests of Mexico.

“It takes three or four generations to do the migration,” said Pringle.

No one butterfly makes it from Maine to Mexico and then back to Maine. Instead, the trip is done over the course of several life cycles, Pringle explained.

A butterfly locates milkweed plants, lays an egg, then dies. The egg hatches, eats, goes into a chrysalis, becomes a butterfly, flies part of the migration, finds a milkweed plant, lays an egg, and the migration continues.

Until the mid 1970s, no Western scientists knew where the butterflies wintered over, said Pringle. Of course, the local people in Mexico knew, but no one was telling.

Then a Canadian scientist found the trees, high up in the Mexican forest, where millions of butterflies spent the winter. He published his findings in National Geographic, but refused to reveal the exact location.

However, Dr. Lincoln Brower, a research professor at Princeton, figured out based on the report, where he could find the butterflies. Since then, Brower has continued to study the migration and has even begun offering Princeton alumni a guided trip to Mexico to see the famous trees full of butterflies.

Pringle, who is a Princeton alumnus himself, said after traveling to Cape May, N.J. to see the first part of the Monarch migration, he couldn’t turn down an opportunity to see them at the end of their journey.

So he and his wife packed up and headed to Mexico with a team of scientists. They were guided by locals through the forests into the mountains.

“This was anti-resort Mexico,” said Pringle.

Pringle said one of the biggest challenges for the area is balancing the local people’s need to support themselves by harvesting lumber with protecting the tallest trees where the butterflies spend their winters.

“It’s rich tourists and eco-tourism versus lumbering,” said Pringle.

Pringle will present photos from his trip and discuss Monarch migration at the Scarborough Public Library’s Armchair Traveler Series on Wednesday, Aug. 11 at 6:30 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or eparkhurst@theforecaster.net

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Several Monarch butterflies sip nectar from flowers in Harry Pringle’s yard on Little Diamond Island. Pringle became enamored with the insects after watching them hatch from chrysalises on the milkweed plants around his property. He became so enamored, he followed the butterflies on their migration, first to Cape May in New Jersey, and then to Mexico.

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