Monday, June 17, 2024

Monarch butterfly expert led efforts to protect the insect’s Mexico habitat

A prominent American scientist and foremost monarch butterfly expert who led efforts to preserve the Mexican winter habitat of the delicate orange-and black insect died last week at his home in Virginia.

Lincoln P. Brower was 86.

His wife, Linda S. Fink, said he had Parkinson’s disease.

According to an obituary published Sunday by The Washington Post, the Princeton and Yale-educated scientist made key discoveries about how the monarch butterfly protects itself by converting a toxic compound from the milkweed plant — its only food source — into a chemical compound that sickens its predators, mainly birds.

During his long academic career, which included teaching and research stints at three United States universities, Brower made more than 50 trips to Mexico to study the monarch butterfly in the mountainous forests of Michoacán and México state, where those from east of the Rocky Mountains migrate each fall.

“It has the most complicated migration of any insect known,” Brower told the Chicago Tribune in 1998.

“Somehow they know how to get to the same trees every year. It’s a highly specific behavior that is unique to the monarch butterfly.”

Brower first visited Mexico in 1977 and told the Tribune 21 years later that the experience was unforgettable.

“All of a sudden the color of the trees changed. I didn’t realize what I was looking at. It was like a wall, turning from green to gray. It was monarch wings, folded as they roosted — the underside of their wings are grayish,” he said.

“So, here was this wall of butterflies, and I just couldn’t believe it. For the first time in my life, I saw millions of monarch butterflies right in front of me. They were covering the trees, they were all over the boughs. They were on the trunks. They were on the limbs. They were on the bushes. They were everywhere. It is one of the most marvelous sights you can behold in the biological world.”

But during later visits, Brower began to see that the number of monarchs was shrinking and joined efforts by environmental groups to have the butterfly officially recognized as a threatened species.

In a 2005 interview with the Post, he said: “Why should we care? For the same reasons we care about the Mona Lisa or the beauty of Mozart’s music.”

The monarch’s Mexican habitat is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site located about 100 kilometers northwest of Mexico City on the Michoacán-México state border.

Officially called the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, the site covers 56,259 hectares of rugged forested mountains and receives millions of butterflies every year.

Brower received an award from the Mexican government for his work to preserve the monarch and in 2016 was also recognized for his conservation efforts by the Center for Biological Diversity in the United States which gave him the E.O. Wilson Award.

Brower, who was born in Madison, New Jersey in 1931 and first fell in love with butterflies at age five, edited two books and was the author or co-author of more than 200 scientific studies.

He taught at Amherst College in Massachusetts and the University of Florida before becoming a research professor at Virginia’s Sweet Briar College in 1997. All told, the scientist studied the monarch for more than six decades.

Lincoln Pierson Browser is survived by Fink, his wife of 27 years and an ecology professor with whom he frequently collaborated on scientific projects, as well as two children from his first marriage, a brother and two grandchildren.

Source: The Washington Post (en)

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