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How monarch butterflies find their way to Mexico

A new study shows that the butterflies' antennae are key.

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A monarch butterfly rests on a flower at Dillingham Garden in Enid, Okla. Every year, monarch butterflies migrate south to Mexico.

Billy Hefton/Enid News & Eagle/AP

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Millions of monarch butterflies migrate to Mexico for the winter and scientists have long speculated on how the insects find their way. Turns out, their antennas are the key.

How do we know? Well, researchers painted butterfly antennas black, and the insects got lost.

Managing to fly south may not sound like a big deal to people armed with maps and GPS receivers, but all butterflies have for navigation is the sun in the sky.

And the sun keeps moving, so the little creatures have to constantly adjust to stay on course throughout the day.

Like most animals, monarchs have a so-called circadian clock in their brain that helps them know what time it is. Knowing the time and the position of the sun allows them to orient to the south.

But monarch butterflies have a second clock based in their antennas, which also sense light, according to the new study led by Steven M. Reppert, chairman of neurobiology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

"Whatever we learn about the insect ... is going to tell us a little bit more about how our brain works," said Dr. Reppert, who studies the internal clocks in the brains of animals, including people.

Plus, he added in a telephone interview, "it's fascinating biology that's begging to be understood."

Researchers had thought the navigation took place in the brain of the butterfly, but this experiment shows that the brain and antenna each has a circadian clock and they work together, he said.

The researchers, whose study appears in Friday's edition of the journal Science, did the test by holding the butterfly wings gently and dipping their antennas in enamel paint.

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