Expert tells butterfly’s remarkable story

| February 18, 2013

Lincoln Brower surveys a forest site where monarchs winter in the Sierra Chincua Butterfly Sanctuary in 2010. ©Medford Taylor

Lincoln Brower, research professor of biology at Sweet Briar College, will present “The Grand Saga of the Monarch Butterfly” at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 27, in Heuer Auditorium at Sweet Briar’s Guion Science Center.

Brower’s presentation is a vividly illustrated account of his field expeditions and lab explorations over more than 50 years of investigating the monarch’s biology — including its extraordinary annual migration across North America to the high mountains of Michoacán, Mexico. That migration is the stuff of dazzling nature documentaries; picture books, websites and conservation forums; and, recently, a novel by Barbara Kingsolver for which Brower served as a consultant.

Monarch butterflies overwinter in high-altitude fir forests in central Mexico by the hundreds of millions.

Many of the widely known facts presented in biology classes, nature films and publications about monarchs come out of his research on the butterflies’ chemical defenses and the ecological chemistry of their interactions with milkweed, the caterpillars’ host plant.

Brower’s first visit to the monarchs’ winter roost in central Mexico was in 1977. He’s been back more than 50 times.

Hundreds of millions of orange and black insects layered on fir boughs begs questions. How do they get there? Why? What is the physiology that makes a particular plot of mountain forest suitable while another nearby won’t do?

Brower also recognized immediately that logging is especially dangerous to such a selective animal. He began conservation work with World Wildlife Fund Mexico; government agencies in Mexico, the U.S. and Canada; and numerous other colleagues. The work continues today, and Brower has been recognized widely for leading the effort through sound scientific contributions.

The lecture will cover the conservation issues that threaten the butterflies’ migration and wintering biology. Punctuating his talk with photographs ranging from electron micrographs to satellite images, Brower says he hopes it will attract “curious naturalists and ardent conservationists of all ages and backgrounds.”

Brower came to Sweet Briar as a research professor in 1997. He is Distinguished Service Professor of Zoology, Emeritus at the University of Florida, where he spent the latter part of his teaching career after many years at Amherst College. He has a B.A. from Princeton and a Ph.D. from Yale.

Brower has authored or coauthored more than 200 scientific papers, eight films, and two edited books, and is currently writing his magnum opus on the monarch butterfly. He has received the Wilbur Cross Medal from Yale University, the Medal for Zoology from the Linnean Society of London, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Animal Behavior Society and the Royal Entomological Society of London Marsh Award. He has served as president of the Society for the Study of Evolution, the International Society of Chemical Ecology and the Lepidopterists’ Society.

His talk is a prelude to an appearance by Barbara Kingsolver on March 21 as Sweet Briar’s 2013 Waxter Environmental Forum speaker. She will discuss her latest book, “Flight Behavior.” Look for upcoming details on the Waxter Forum at

Please direct questions about Brower’s lecture to Linda Fink, Duberg Professor of Ecology, at [email protected].

Jennifer McManamay


Category: Biology