Sunday, August 07, 2005

Pilot to follow butterfly migration

August 04, 2005

There are thousands of miles (kilometers) ahead and room for only two in the oversized hangglider with a minuscule motor tacked on the bottom.

But the crew won't be flying alone: Its ultra-light plane will follow millions of monarch butterflies during every part of their winter migration from the forests of eastern Canada to the central Mexican mountains.

Mexican pilot Francisco "Vico" Gutiérrez and a crew including other pilots from Canada, the United States and this country, plan to leave Quebec on Aug. 15 and follow that migration.

The route will take them to Montreal and Toronto in Canada and south across the United States with stops at Niagara Falls, New York; New York City; Washington; Lawrence, Kansas; Oklahoma City; Austin, Texas; and Eagle Pass, on the Mexican border.

The trip is scheduled to come to an end on Nov. 2, in Valle del Bravo, close to the forests where the butterflies winter in Michoacan state. It is sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund of Mexico, the government of Michoacan and Gutiérrez himself.

The annual arrival of monarch butterflies from across North America to Mexico where they winter from October to late March is an aesthetic and scientific wonder.

But illegal logging continues to thin and topple the fir forests west of Mexico City that protect butterflies from the rain and cold. Gutiérrez said he hopes the flight will raise awareness about the need to better-conserve the monarchs' fragile habitats.

Its wings painted with giant versions of the orange, black and white wings of the monarch butterfly, the aircraft is equipped with just an 80-horsepower engine.

He plans to pilot the plane about five times faster than the rate of the butterflies, but only travel the daily distances they travel.

The journey should produce a documentary, and a photographer or cameraman will accompany Gutiérrez or other pilots onboard, while the rest of the team follows along in a van.

The project is dubbed Papalotzin, a word from the ancient Nahuatl language spoken by the Aztecs which roughly translates to small butterfly. In all, Gutiérrez expects to travel 3,415 miles (5,500 kilometers), using about 205 gallons (780 liters) of gasoline along the way.

Carlos Galindo, forest director for the World Wildlife Fund in Mexico, said no one had followed the butterflies via air for all of their transcontinental journey. Doing so can teach scientists how they cope with changing wind patterns, temperature shifts and difficult weather, he said.

It is also unclear, for instance, at what altitude the butterflies cruise and why those migrating have a life span of eight months while generations that come before and after the trip live only about a month, he said.

Watching as crew members assembled the plane for journalists in a crowded but peaceful park in the capital, Gutiérrez said "I'm actually really nervous."

"No, that's not true," he was quick to add as the plane began to take shape, in a process that resembled campers erecting a tent. "I'm really content, really excited."



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