A butterfly breakthrough

Fred Urquhart built a continental network of amateur scientists to discover the migration routes of the monarch butterfly

Berton Woodward
Image of monarch butterfly

It was a mystery no scientist had ever solved, but thanks to the assistance of a network of “citizen scientists” spread across North America, UTSC Zoologist Fred Urquhart finally found the answer, to global acclaim.

Every fall the beautiful monarch butterflies of summer would suddenly up and flit away from the gardens and meadows of central Canada and the northeastern U.S. Where did they go?

Urquhart had loved butterflies since childhood. The monarch migration became his prime intellectual obsession as he went on to become Director of Zoology at the Royal Ontario Museum and later a full-time zoology professor at U of T.

While completing his PhD at U of T in 1940, he devised a way of tagging monarchs with a tiny numbered label reading “Send to Zoology University Toronto Canada.” In 1945, he married teacher Norah Patterson, his lifelong research partner, and together they tagged thousands of butterflies.

Realizing they needed help, Urquhart in 1952 began recruiting people from all over the continent to his Insect Migration Society to help with tagging and sightings. Over the next 20 years, these citizen scientists sent in thousands of reports—and butterflies.

But though the flight paths—all the way to Texas—were becoming clearer, the monarchs’ final destination was still elusive when Urquhart joined U of T’s new Scarborough College in 1966 as a senior scientist in zoology. In 1972, Patterson decided to publicize the citizen campaign via newspapers in Mexico. An American expatriate, Ken Brugger and his Mexican wife Catalina Aguado picked up the trail.

In early 1975, they called Urquhart with riveting news: local people had helped them find the monarchs’ wintering place high in the Sierra Madre of central Mexico. Urquhart joined them the following year to see a forest covered with millions of monarchs. Almost immediately he found a tag from Minnesota, leaving no doubt that this was the end of a 4,000-km migration. “I had waited decades for this moment,” he wrote in a 1976 cover story for National Geographic that spread his story worldwide.

Just a year later, he retired from UTSC. “This was a really worthwhile end to a person’s career,” notes retired UTSC botany professor Ron Dengler, who knew Urquhart in that era. “In this field you don’t know if your goals are going to be met in the long haul.”

Urquhart and Patterson were appointed to the Order of Canada in 1998. He died in 2002, she in 2009. But their legacy lives on. A 2012 IMAX movie, Flight of the Butterflies, tells the dramatic story in 3D, with actor Gordon Pinsent playing Urquhart. And the Insect Migration Society has metamorphosed into Monarch Watch, a highly active scientific group that advocates strongly for more protection for the monarch habitat.

UTSC will dedicate a Memorial Garden in Prof. Urquhart’s memory September 30 at noon behind the H-Wing.