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Study: Monarch butterflies may use magnetic compass for autumn migrations to central Mexico

  • Butterfly Migration-1.jpg

    FILE - In this July 22, 2012 file photo, a Monarch butterfly eats nectar from a swamp milkweed on the shore of Rock Lake in Pequot Lakes, Minn. A new study published in the journal Nature Communications suggests that monarch butterflies use an internal magnetic compass to help navigate on their annual migrations from North America to central Mexico. (AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt, File) (The Associated Press)

  • Butterfly Migration-2.jpg

    FILE - In this Oct. 21, 2013 file photo, a monarch butterfly lands on a confetti lantana plant in San Antonio. A new study published in the journal Nature Communications suggests that monarch butterflies use an internal magnetic compass to help navigate on their annual migrations from North America to central Mexico. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File) (The Associated Press)

  • Butterfly Migration-3.jpg

    FILE - In this Feb. 15, 2013 file photo, Monarch butterflies are collected in a net to be tested for the ophroyocystis elektroscirrha parasite that inhibits their flight, at El Capulin reserve, near Zitacuaro, Mexico. A new study published in the journal Nature Communications suggests that monarch butterflies use an internal magnetic compass to help navigate on their annual migrations from North America to central Mexico. (AP Photo/Marjorie Miller, File) (The Associated Press)

A new study suggests that monarch butterflies use an internal magnetic compass to help navigate on their annual migrations from North America to central Mexico.

Scientists already knew they navigate by the sun. But the insects do just fine on very cloudy days, leading to suspicions they also use a magnetic compass, like migratory birds and sea turtles. Previous studies haven't made a clear case for that, according to researchers who report the new work Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications.

The scientists tethered monarchs in a chamber without any outdoor light and showed that their flight patterns responded to changes in the magnetic field. Further work suggested the compass is in the antennae.

Millions of the black-and-orange butterflies spend the winter in Mexico.