Monarch Butterfly Meets “Endangered” Criteria, but No Protection Coming

u.s. fish and wildlife service to prioritize other endangered species

By Jonny Lupsha, News Writer

Despite meeting criteria, monarch butterflies will not be listed as endangered, USA Today reported. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will revisit the idea in 2024 after looking at “higher-priority” species. Butterflies and moths differ in surprising ways.

Two Monarch butterflies on flower
You can help save the monarch butterfly by planting milkweed and nectar plants native to your geographic area and by becoming a citizen scientist to monitor the number of monarchs in your area. Photo By emkaplin / Shutterstock

According to USA Today, the monarch butterfly will receive no help from the government, despite its waning population numbers. “The federal government has decided against listing the monarch butterfly as either threatened or endangered—at least for now,” the article said.

“The Trump administration has rolled back protections for endangered and threatened species in its push for deregulation, even as the United Nations says one million species face extinction because of climate change, development, and other human causes.”

The article said the delay is due to 161 other species that are a higher priority to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the governing body that determines such matters.

Butterflies and moths—the butterfly’s dusty cousins—share a number of unique features while differing in other ways.

Anatomy of a Lovely Insect

Dr. Donald E. Moore III, Director of the Oregon Zoo and Senior Science Advisor at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, showed that even basic information about butterflies and moths can be astounding.

“There are about 20,000 butterfly species around the world, and these are outnumbered by more than 150,000 species of moths,” he said. “Some miner moths are as small as the thickness of a coin, less than 1/8-inch from wingtip to wingtip. Others are as large as birds, like the Atlas moth that measures one foot across.”

Dr. Moore said that much like every other insect, all butterflies and moths have six legs; a head; and a body in two parts, an abdomen and a thorax. Rather than a mouth, they have tube-shaped feeding organs called a proboscis. However, some don’t even have a proboscis. They do all their eating as caterpillars; then as adults, they live off stored energy until they die.

They also taste, smell, and see, but not like humans.

“We taste with our tongues, while butterflies and many insects have taste sensors in their feet,” Dr. Moore said. “We smell with our nose, but male moths smell the airborne chemical signals from female moths through their feathery antennae, which have smell sensory organs all over their surface. We see with our single-lensed eyes, while butterflies have compound eyes so they can see in many directions at once—but apparently these creatures cannot see as clearly as we can see.”

On the Wing

The most striking characteristic of butterflies and moths is likely the array of colors and patterns on their wings. These designs are as functional as they are fashionable.

“Many night-flying moths are dark and have camouflage patterns, so they are also more difficult for predators to find at all times,” Dr. Moore said. “Some moths, like Promethea moths, have large “eyes” on their hind wings to scare predators. Butterflies, moths, and their caterpillars spend so much time hiding from enemies that, among the thousands of species, we can find ones shaped like leaves, sticks, bird scat, bees, snakes, or dead leaves.”

Most of the time, butterflies fold their wings up at rest while moths rest with their wings laid flat. Additionally, butterfly wings are covered in thousands of tiny scales that overlap. Dr. Moore said that some butterflies have very few scales on their wings, making them appear more transparent, which causes predators to have difficulty in seeing them.

Until the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declares more endangered species in 2024, monarch butterflies will have to hope their survival instincts can hold out.

This article was proofread and copyedited by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for The Great Courses Daily.

Dr. Donald E. Moore, III, Ph.D.

Dr. Donald E. Moore III contributed to this article. Dr. Moore, director of the Oregon Zoo and senior science advisor at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, is a conservation biologist with nearly 40 years of experience in wildlife conservation, animal welfare, and zoo management. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Wildlife Management and Zoology and a doctoral degree in Conservation Biology from the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

About Jonny Lupsha, News Writer 680 Articles
Jonny is a freelance writer and novelist who lives in Sterling, Virginia. He has written for The Great Courses since 2017 and enjoys studying the courses as much as writing about them. Contact Jonny at lupshaj@teachco.com