Milkweeds and Monarchs
Comparing Adaptation Strategies

Milkweed seeds blowing in the wind Monarch butterflies flying to Mexico
Elizabeth Howard

Dr. Lincoln Brower, Sweet Briar College

Monarch butterflies and milkweed occupy the same habitat during the breeding season. But when freezing temperatures approach, they show very different adaptations for survival.

Monarch butterflies carry their seed stock all the way to Mexico. Milkweed seeds stay home. When the two meet again in the spring, imagine how different their lives will have been!

Try This!

  • Describe the life cycles of monarchs and milkweed. Draw a picture of each during each season: fall, winter, spring and summer.
  • How are milkweed and monarch survival strategies similar in the fall? How are they different?
"Adaptations" are physical or behavioral features that evolved in response to an organism's environment, due to pressures for survival. How a species looks (its anatomy and morphology), as well as how it behaves (moves, obtains food, reproduces, responds to danger, etc.) are all adaptations for survival.

Migration is a Behavioral Adaption
Monarch migration is a built-in survival strategy that enables monarchs to 1) take advantage of North America's abundant summer milkweed, and then 2) avoid freezing to death in the winter.

National Science Education Standards

  • Organisms have basic needs. They can survive only in environments in which their needs can be met.
  • An organism's behavior patterns are related to the nature of that organism's environment
  • All organisms must be able to obtain and use resources, grow, reproduce, and maintain stable internal conditions in a constantly changing external environment.
  • An organism's behavior evolves through adaptation to its environment. How a species moves, obtains food, reproduces, and responds to danger are based in the species' evolutionary history.