Scientists Document Painted Lady Butterfly's 2,600-Mile Transatlantic Flight

Scientists Document Painted Lady Butterfly's 2,600-Mile Transatlantic Flight

A recent study led by Gerard Talavera, an entomologist and evolutionary biologist at the Botanical Institute of Barcelona, has revealed that painted lady butterflies (Vanessa cardui) have made one of the longest nonstop flights ever recorded for individual insects. The research, using a multidisciplinary approach including wind pattern analysis, pollen samples, and genomic data, suggests that these butterflies flew from West Africa after hatching in Western Europe. They spent five to eight days gliding over the Atlantic Ocean on favorable winds before landing on the coast of South America.

The study, conducted through coastal sampling surveys in French Guiana in October 2013, utilized the HYSPLIT dispersion model from NOAA’s Air Resources Laboratory to reconstruct wind trajectories. Molecular data from samples collected in North America, Europe, and Africa were analyzed, showing a closer genetic relatedness to African and European populations. This finding eliminated the likelihood of the butterflies originating from North America. Additionally, DNA sequencing of pollen grains carried by the butterflies identified plant species exclusive to tropical Africa, indicating that the butterflies nectared on African flowers before their transatlantic journey.

The research suggests that natural aerial corridors connecting continents may exist on a larger scale than previously imagined. The Saharan Air Layer, known for transporting dust from the Sahara Desert to South America, was identified as a potential significant route for insect dispersion. This discovery of a 4,200 km transatlantic flight by painted lady butterflies may be the first verified account of an individual insect crossing the Atlantic Ocean, highlighting the possibility of extensive natural aerial routes facilitating species dispersal.

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