Film Highlights the ‘Incredible’ in Butterflies’ Annual Flight

| January 28, 2009

Sweet Briar College biologist Lincoln Brower was a featured researcher in a documentary on monarch butterflies that premiered Jan. 27 on the Public Broadcasting Service science series NOVA. “The Incredible Journey of the Butterflies” follows the 2,000-mile migration of the monarchs from Canada to their overwintering grounds in the mountains of central Mexico.

The phenomenon of the monarchs’ annual flight from the northern United States and Canada to Mexico still confounds scientists like Brower, who has studied the overwintering, migration and conservation biology of the species for more than five decades.

In the film, Chip Taylor, a University of Kansas biologist, says a butterfly may originate in Toronto, Detroit or even Winnipeg, Canada. “And it’s moving south, and somehow it finds its way to Mexico. Could you do that?”

How the insects navigate is a mystery, but their reckoning remains intact even when they are experimentally transported off course. Taylor shipped a bunch of monarchs from Kansas to Washington, D.C. When they began to migrate, they started out due south. When they reached the Atlantic coastline they corrected their course, flying southwest to Texas and into Mexico.

Also curious, the newly minted monarchs – the migration begins almost as soon as they emerge from the chrysalis – start their journey alone but soon join their compatriots and arrive at their Mexican destination en masse. They fill the skies and cling to trees by the tens of millions.

How the film came to be a NOVA presentation is a journey in itself – and a turn of events that gladdened Brower’s scientist’s heart. He explained the documentary was originally released in 2007 with the title “Four Wings and a Prayer.” Based on Sue Halpern’s book of the same title, Brower said its Canadian director, Nick de Pencier, produced a masterpiece of video photography.

“Some of the most beautiful footage of monarch butterflies I’ve ever seen is in that film,” Brower said, describing gorgeous video of overwintering monarchs in Mexico and incredible close-ups.

There are shots where telltale details are visible, such as the black perfume pouches on the upper side of the male monarchs’ hind wings. The pouches are used in courtship and provide an easy way to distinguish the sexes, he said.

De Pencier also captures the metamorphosis from egg to caterpillar and a monarch emerging from its chrysalis.

As scientists, though, Brower and his colleagues were ultimately disappointed with “Four Wings and a Prayer.” Then NOVA, one of the premier science series on U.S. television, purchased the rights to the film, rewrote the script and edited it from 80-plus minutes to less than an hour.

The producers conducted new interviews with the featured experts, including Brower who did the second shoot in the butterfly garden at Sweet Briar. Don’t tell anyone, but he dug up the same hat and shirt that he wore for the first one, shot in Mexico.

An internationally recognized expert on monarchs, Brower has contributed to numerous documentaries. The NOVA filmmakers’ professionalism impressed him during the interview and he was hopeful that their changes would offer a more sophisticated scientific narrative than the original – and fewer of the small but nettling inaccuracies that he says inevitably creep into such projects.

Documentary producers normally don’t allow the scientific community to review their work before final editing, a step he feels could easily prevent the mistakes. “They’re trivial little things, but why not get it right?”

Brower was happy with NOVA’s revision, especially because it made clear that the migration is a “magnificent cultural treasure that should be protected for all time,” he said.

As an outspoken defender of the monarch and its habitats, he appreciates the help. The film is “reaching probably several million people and it’s really strongly embracing the importance of monarchs in our culture,” he said. “That makes the whole thing worthwhile.”

Encore presentations will air at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 28 and 1 a.m. Feb. 1 on Blue Ridge PBS Channel 15. Additional air times are available on the Blue Ridge PBS HD and Blue Ridge PBS World digital channels.

Brower also appears in a preview of the show that can be seen at

Category: Environmental Science, Environmental Studies