The Discovery Story

Dr. Fred Urquhart

On May 6th 1998, Fred and Norah Urquhart were jointly appointed to the Order of Canada. They were credited with “one of the greatest natural history discoveries of our time.”

“I do not know of any species of insect that has aroused a greater interest among the populace in many parts of the world than the monarch butterfly. One of the great pleasures Norah and I have had in our studies of the monarchs has been receiving letters from children and adults alike, expressing their delight at being introduced to the study of nature through our program of monarch butterfly tagging and research. Studying monarch butterflies has been a source of great happiness for us.” – Fred Urquhart, 1987

Born in Toronto, Fred Urquhart’s love of butterflies began as a boy, daydreaming about where the butterflies went in winter. Fred was fascinated by the world of insects including butterflies by the age of five and spent endless hours observing them. His public school was next to a cattail marsh which was filled with fascinating creatures for Fred to observe. In elementary school he read everything he could on natural history at the local library and when there were no more books for him to read, the librarian decided he could join the senior library on the second floor, well ahead of the other kids his age. The first book he read from there was Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species and everything else to do with natural history that was available.

Fred was just 17 in 1927 when he wrote to Dr. C B. Williams, the leading authority on insect migration asking him if he considered the monarch butterfly to be a migrant. Fred also loved music and it was supposed to be his eventual career. He listened to the orchestration of singing and chirping grasshoppers and crickets which eventually led him to do his doctorate on the morphology and ecology of the Orthoptera (grasshoppers and crickets), which eventually led him back to the monarch butterfly.

He became a zoology professor and married a fellow teacher and lover of butterflies, Norah Patterson. She took up his quest and a partnership was born. Fred and Norah had a son, Douglas Urquhart, who grew up in Toronto and now lives in the Yukon Territories. Doug, like his parents, clearly has a passion for and considerable knowledge about the monarch butterfly, including through his own independent research. He and his wife Judith carried out an extensive field research program on the monarch butterfly colonies in New Zealand, which formed the basis of Fred’s work and writing on the islands of the South Pacific. He generously provided the film’s research and writing team with very useful insights.

Together, Fred and Norah experimented with ways to track butterflies, spending years perfecting the right tag to stick on delicate and moisture-sensitive butterfly wings. By 1940, they had created a tag made to stick. The tiny label read “Send to Zoology University of Toronto Canada.” Once they began tagging, they realized they’d need more help.

Urquhart tagged Monarchs Don Davis The Discovery Story

Fred and Norah founded the Insect Migration Association (known today as Monarch Watch), enlisting thousands of volunteers across North America to tag hundreds of thousands of butterflies in order to track their migration route. In 1975, this association ultimately helped Dr. Urquhart determine where millions of butterflies migrated – the remote Transvolcanic Belt of central Mexico.

The first citizen scientists in Mexico, Ken Brugger and his Mexican wife Catalina Aguado, spent two years searching in the mountains west of Mexico City before finally coming upon millions of butterflies 10,000 feet above sea level on Cerro Pelon on the border of the States of Mexico and Michoacan in 1975. National Geographic featured the discovery in their August, 1976 issue.

Finding the Proof

In the film, we follow the story of PS 397, the monarch butterfly tag that was released by two school boys and their teacher from Chaska Minnesota in early August 1975. This same tag and butterfly ended up being the very one Dr. Fred Urquhart found four months later, on January 9th, 1976, 10,000 feet high in the remote Sierra Madre mountains of Michoacan Mexico. The butterfly would have flown over 2,000 miles and for at least two months to get there. Fred discovered it five minutes after he arrived in the sanctuary for the first time – truly a miraculous situation, verified by the eye witnesses, including the National Geographic photographer Bianca Lavies and the surviving member of the discovery team, Catalina Aguado.

FredUrquhart The Discovery Story The National Geographic photographer took this photo just minutes after Fred found the tagged Monarch on the ground among the millions of butterflies!

The film depicts the tag story and discovery moment authentically.

On this day, and as depicted in the August 1976 feature story and cover of National Geographic, Fred and Norah Urquhart travelled up to the remote butterfly sanctuary with Ken and Catalina Brugger, a local woodcutter and National Geographic photographer. This is where, the year prior, Ken and Catalina had first discovered the butterflies overwintering site working for Fred Urquhart.

Upon first hearing the news from Ken, Fred’s immediate response was joy, and his next response was purely scientific, “You must keep searching for more colonies and you MUST find a tag to prove that they are our migrating butterflies from up North – search for a tag, we must find a tag”.

Ken and Catalina kept searching for a tag for the next year, but their quest turned up nothing. Up and down the secluded high mountainsides, without roads, in their jeep and on their motorcycle they searched tirelessly to find a tag. They found more colonies, but no tag.

The only remaining person from the original discovery team is Catalina Aguado and she came to the sites with the SK production team for a few days of the filming and personally verified these events. In fact, she told us how happy she was that it was Fred who ultimately found the tag – she felt, in a way, it was truly divine. She admired both Dr. Urquhart, Norah and the work they had done very much and that they deserved this honour after a 40-year search.

discovery 2 The Discovery Story Catalina Aguado covered in Monarch butterflies featured on the cover of the 1976 National Geographic.

The only element we were not able to replicate, due to conservation restrictions in the sanctuaries and our desire not to hurt any butterflies, was to have the branch break off and fall near Fred. It would have meant the needless death of many butterflies.

To put this in context, there are many scientists who had studied the monarchs in the sanctuaries for decades, and still not found a tag. Fred was in the sanctuary for less than 5 minutes, when he discovered the proof he needed, tag PS 397. The National Geographic photographer took the famous photo of this tag within a minute of Fred having found it.

At the time of Dr. Urquhart’s tag discovery, there were around a billion butterflies. Today, their numbers have been reduced in half. So, it makes the odds of him finding a tag even smaller.

 The Discovery Story
get involved become a citizen scientist spot The Discovery Story
read the article The Discovery Story