Polarized light helps monarch butterflies navigate

Curr Biol. 2004 Jan 20;14(2):155-8. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2003.12.034.


During their spectacular migratory journey in the fall, North American monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) use a time-compensated sun compass to help them navigate to their overwintering sites in central Mexico. One feature of the sun compass mechanism not fully explored in monarchs is the sunlight-dependent parameters used to navigate. We now provide data suggesting that the angle of polarized skylight (the e-vector) is a relevant orientation parameter. By placing butterflies in a flight simulator outdoors and using a linear polarizing filter, we show that manipulating the e-vector alters predictably the direction of oriented flight. Butterflies studied in either the morning or afternoon showed similar responses to filter rotation. Monarch butterflies possess the anatomical structure needed for polarized skylight detection, as rhabdoms in the dorsalmost row of photoreceptor cells in monarch eye show the organization characteristic of polarized-light receptors. The existence of polarized-light detection could allow migrants to accurately navigate under a variety of atmospheric conditions and reveals a critical input pathway into the sun compass mechanism.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animal Migration*
  • Animals
  • Butterflies / anatomy & histology
  • Butterflies / physiology*
  • Filtration
  • Flight, Animal / physiology
  • Microscopy, Electron
  • North America
  • Orientation / physiology*
  • Photoreceptor Cells, Invertebrate / physiology*
  • Photoreceptor Cells, Invertebrate / ultrastructure
  • Sunlight*