It was a scene to bring butterflies to the stomach of any lepidopterist. The tall pines were covered with millions of monarch butterflies, and the forest floor was thick with their orange wings. “Pretend you’re in a cathedral, and instead of windows, shafts of light are coming through the trees,” recalls Dr. Lincoln P. Brower. “When the monarchs fly through the sunlight, the whole forest is like dancing embers. It is a fairyland.” As he walked through that forest 9,000 feet high in the mountains west of Mexico City, Brower came upon a rival biologist, Dr. Fred Urquhart, busily affixing tiny tags to the wings of butterflies. “I introduced myself,” Brower recalls. “After some strained conversation, he asked me how I got there.”
The Stanley-Livingstone confrontation in that faraway grove in January 1977 marked another step in solving the riddle of where the migrating monarchs go in winter. The orange-and-black butterfly is one of the most common in North America and one of the few that flies south when the weather turns cold. Monarchs that brighten the meadows west of the Rockies are known to migrate to California, but scientists had no clue as to the winter whereabouts of the monarchs that inhabit the eastern U.S. and Canada in summer. “Then three years ago,” says Brower, 46, a professor at Amherst, “a rumor began to circulate that the place had been found.” It was disclosed in the August 1976 issue of the National Geographic: Dr. Urquhart, professor emeritus of the department of zoology at the University of Toronto, had tracked down the elusive migrants in Mexico. But his account of the discovery in the press and scientific journals deliberately obscured the location. “We lied,” admits Urquhart, 66. “We wanted to keep the place secret until it was protected.”
Lepidopterists everywhere clamored to be told. “Urquhart’s discovery was the most important in the field of butterfly biology in this century,” Brower acknowledges. “This is the crowning achievement of his career. I’m sympathetic to his not wanting to share the location until steps can be taken to protect it from tourists and collectors, but he has an obligation to share with the scientific community.”
Brower wanted to know the location in order to pursue his studies of cardiac glycosides, poisons that are carried by the monarch. They are closely related to the heart drug digitalis, and Brower feels that his research could lead to saving lives. Urquhart rejected the theory that monarchs are poisonous—which is said to protect them from birds—and despite all entreaties he continued to guard his secret. In frustration, Brower and his research associates turned to detective work. After combing Urquhart’s articles for clues, Dr. William Calvert, a colleague of Brower’s, was sent to Mexico armed with a map of likely locations and a sample monarch butterfly preserved in plastic. “By sheer luck,” Brower recalls, “the first town Calvert went to [in the state of Michoacán] supplied a guide to the site.” On hearing the news, Brower flew to Mexico and his unlikely meeting with Urquhart.
Since then Urquhart’s defenders have accused Brower of “uncouth and bizarre” conduct, and of sneakily trailing their man into the wilderness. Brower denies it. A graduate of Princeton who also studied at Yale and Oxford, he netted his first butterfly (a yellow swallowtail) at the age of 5 in his Madison, N.J. backyard. Urquhart vows that he will never return to the forest he found but hints he knows of other, yet undiscovered wintering sites. “From now on,” he says, “we’ll go in silently and unobtrusively.” As for his battle with Lincoln Brower, “I’m a researcher, not a politician. I leave him with his studies of poisons. I have my studies of migration.”