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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

A swarm of monarch butterflies, their familiar orange-and-black markings shining under soft museum lights, clung to wires in the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity, waiting to be free.

The McGuire Center will release more than 500 monarch butterflies to monitor their migration patterns at the ButterflyFest on Saturday and Sunday.

Eight UF students and one high school student bred about a hundred of the far-flying monarchs to be released in the rearing lab of the Butterfly Rainforest.

This is the first year that monarchs will be tagged and let loose at the festival.

Thomas Emmel, the director at the McGuire Center, said the butterflies will be released hourly over the course of the event.

Every year, up to two billion monarchs from east of the Rocky Mountains migrate to one of just 12 sites within 100 square miles in central Mexico.

But very little is known about the route that monarchs from North Florida take.

The tracking tags, which are close to a quarter of an inch in diameter, will be fixed to the butterflies' wings, Emmel said.

On the tags is the program's Web site, phone number and a unique tag number for each butterfly, all written in very, very fine print.

Emmel received the tags Sept. 19 from Monarch Watch, a conservation program out of the University of Kansas.

The monarchs are famous enough that Mexican residents who can't read English know they'll receive ,5 from Monarch Watch for finding and turning in a butterfly with a tag, he said.

Michoacán, a mountainous region west of Mexico City, harbors the butterflies for about half the year.

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Groups studying the monarchs visit Michoacán throughout the year, including a group led by Emmel in January.

The area is populated with a specific type of fir tree with needles that are "small enough for their six little feet to grab them securely," Emmel said.

During the migration season, the monarchs will cover the forest in the mountains of Michoacán, enveloping entire trees with their colors

"It looks like a giant orange Christmas tree," Emmel said.

He said he hopes to continue releasing monarchs to study their migration patterns.

"If it works, we'll probably be releasing thousands each fall," he said. "And we'll be tagging every one."

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