Film captures journey of monarch butterflies

| Thursday, March 14, 2013, 8:55 p.m.

At first glance, the image on the IMAX screen might look like autumn trees in this region, covered with brilliant orange leaves. But the trees stand thousands of miles south of here in the Mexican mountains, and orange monarch butterflies cover every inch of the branches.

Those butterflies are the descendants of monarchs — and even a few originals — from the northern United States and Canada. These colorful, winged insects embark on a phenomenal migration south in the fall, and the new “Flight of the Butterflies” movie gives viewers a close-up look at the fascinating journey and all of the butterflies' life stages, says the film's executive producer.

“It's incredible, really,” says Jonathan Barker, of Toronto-based SK Films. “It's one of the most amazing migrations on Earth for sure. ... It's a miracle of nature. It truly is.”

“Flight of the Butterflies” — which opens on March 15 at the Carnegie Science Center's Rangos Omnimax Theater in the North Side — tells the true story of the late Canadian scientist Fred Urquhart, who spent four decades trying to figure out where the monarchs disappeared to when they flew away for the winter. Where is their secret hideaway?

Urquhart and his Mexican wife, Catalina Aguado, tagged some of their local butterflies with stickers on the wings, and with the help of a troop of volunteer “citizen scientists,” the team eventually, in 1975, discovered the monarchs' secret winter sanctuary: They congregate by the millions in a 10,000-foot-high area near the border of Mexico's states of Michoacan and Mexico, then begin their multigenerational journey back north in March. Throughout this journey, the butterflies lay eggs on milkweed plants, and new generations hatch into caterpillars. When mature, these new butterflies continue the flight.

“It's basically millions of butterflies all clustered together in trees, in colonies,” Barker says. “It's the most extraordinary visual experience. Literally, the trees are practically bending from the weight. When (monarchs) take off and decide to go get water, they explode off the trees in streams of butterflies.”

Incredibly, among the millions of butterflies, one of those tagged by Urquhart flew over and landed in his hand at the Mexican sanctuary.

Viewers of the panoramic IMAX movie get the feeling that butterflies are flittering above and around them. How did the camera operators get up so close to the monarchs?

The butterflies completely surrounded the cameras and aren't scared by them, Barker says.

“They will stream past you ... and the camera is just a foot away,” he says.

Barker says he hopes that viewers of “Flight of the Butterflies” will gain an appreciation for nature and these extraordinary insects, and hopefully plant milkweed — also called butterfly weed and asclepias, which come in many colors — in their gardens to help monarchs spawn new generations on their journey. Because of factors such as habitat loss, the monarch migration is considered threatened, Barker says.

“Science as adventure is one really important part of the movie, and getting kids ... to understand that science can be amazingly challenging but also an adventure,” he says. “It's meant to be certainly inspirational as well as a beautiful, natural history story.”

Robin Skindzier, 37, of Whitehall attended a preview of “Flight of the Butterflies” with her kids — Francis, 9; Susan, 6; and Theresa, 8 — and said they all loved it. Skindzier says the sight of the orange butterflies covering the trees impressed her.

“I thought it was leaves,” she says.

Kellie B. Gormly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at or 412-320-7824.

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