Migration in butterflies: a global overview

Biol Rev Camb Philos Soc. 2021 Aug;96(4):1462-1483. doi: 10.1111/brv.12714. Epub 2021 Mar 29.


Insect populations including butterflies are declining worldwide, and they are becoming an urgent conservation priority in many regions. Understanding which butterfly species migrate is critical to planning for their conservation, because management actions for migrants need to be coordinated across time and space. Yet, while migration appears to be widespread among butterflies, its prevalence, as well as its taxonomic and geographic distribution are poorly understood. The study of insect migration is hampered by their small size and the difficulty of tracking individuals over long distances. Here we review the literature on migration in butterflies, one of the best-known insect groups. We find that nearly 600 butterfly species show evidence of migratory movements. Indeed, the rate of 'discovery' of migratory movements in butterflies suggests that many more species might in fact be migratory. Butterfly migration occurs across all families, in tropical as well as temperate taxa; Nymphalidae has more migratory species than any other family (275 species), and Pieridae has the highest proportion of migrants (13%; 133 species). Some 13 lines of evidence have been used to ascribe migration status in the literature, but only a single line of evidence is available for 92% of the migratory species identified, with four or more lines of evidence available for only 10 species - all from the Pieridae and Nymphalidae. Migratory butterflies occur worldwide, although the geographic distribution of migration in butterflies is poorly resolved, with most data so far coming from Europe, USA, and Australia. Migration is much more widespread in butterflies than previously realised - extending far beyond the well-known examples of the monarch Danaus plexippus and the painted lady Vanessa cardui - and actions to conserve butterflies and insects in general must account for the spatial dependencies introduced by migratory movements.

Keywords: Lepidoptera; butterfly; butterfly migration ecology; conservation; insect movement; migratory butterflies; monarch; painted lady; seasonal movement.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animal Migration
  • Animals
  • Australia
  • Butterflies*
  • Europe
  • Humans
  • Insecta