The migratory monarch butterfly, known for its spectacular annual journey of up to 4,000 kilometers across the Americas, has entered the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species as Endangered, threatened by habitat destruction and climate change.
The IUCN’s “red list” of threatened species and categorized it as “endangered” is described as two steps from extinct. All surviving sturgeon species – also migratory, found across the northern hemisphere – are now at risk of extinction due to dams and poaching, pushing the world’s most Critically Endangered group of animals yet closer to the brink.
The IUCN Red List now includes 147,517 species, of which 41,459 are threatened with extinction.
“Today’s Red List update highlights the fragility of nature’s wonders, such as the unique spectacle of monarch butterflies migrating across thousands of kilometers,” said Dr Bruno Oberle, IUCN Director General. “To preserve the rich diversity of nature we need effective, fairly governed protected and conserved areas, alongside decisive action to tackle climate change and restore ecosystems. In turn, conserving biodiversity supports communities by providing essential services such as food, water and sustainable jobs.”
The Endangered migratory monarch butterfly is a subspecies of the monarch butterfly. The native population, known for its migrations from Mexico and California in the winter to summer breeding grounds throughout the United States and Canada, has shrunk by between 22% and 72% over the past decade. Legal and illegal logging and deforestation to make space for agriculture and urban development has already destroyed substantial areas of the butterflies’ winter shelter in Mexico and California, while pesticides and herbicides used in intensive agriculture across the range kill butterflies and milkweed, the host plant that the larvae of the monarch butterfly feed on.
“It is tragic to see one of the world’s most well-known butterfly species, with remarkable migratory behaviors and local cultural significance, threatened with extinction. Assessments like these provide us with the foundations for conservation actions to try and help protect a species and avert further loss,” said Sophie Ledger, ZSL (Zoological Society of London) Indicators & Assessments Unit researcher and member of the IUCN SSC Butterfly and Moth Specialist Group. “Here at ZSL, we are collaborating with global experts to shed light on the status of a wide range of species, including butterflies. Considering the current global biodiversity crisis, it is critical to uncover what is happening with diverse and functionally important species such as these before it’s too late.”
It is reported that climate change has significantly impacted the migratory monarch butterfly and is a fast-growing threat; drought limits the growth of milkweed and increases the frequency of catastrophic wildfires, temperature extremes trigger earlier migrations before milkweed is available, while severe weather has killed millions of butterflies.
The western population is at greatest risk of extinction, having declined by an estimated 99.9%, from as many as 10 million to 1,914 butterflies between the 1980s and 2021. The larger eastern population also shrunk by 84% from 1996 to 2014. Concern remains as to whether enough butterflies survive to maintain the populations and prevent extinction.
“It is difficult to watch monarch butterflies and their extraordinary migration teeter on the edge of collapse, but there are signs of hope. So many people and organizations have come together to try and protect this butterfly and its habitats. From planting native milkweed and reducing pesticide use to supporting the protection of overwintering sites and contributing to community science, we all have a role to play in making sure this iconic insect makes a full recovery,” said Anna Walker, member of the IUCN SSC Butterfly and Moth Specialist Group and Species Survival Officer at the New Mexico BioPark Society, who led the monarch butterfly assessment.
“Few species evoke the awe and wonder that the migratory monarch butterfly commands,” said Dr. Sean T. O’Brien, President and CEO of Nature Serve. “While efforts to protect this species are encouraging, much is still needed to ensure its long-term survival. Never has there been a more pressing time to collect data, like that provided by the NatureServe Network, on our nation’s biodiversity.”