I saw my second monarch of the season Friday and thought of Lincoln Brower.
The renowned biologist championed the protection of the iconic orange and black monarch butterfly, chronicling this tiny creature’s extraordinary migration to its wintering grounds in central Mexico.
Brower died July 17 at his home in Roseland at age 86, having taught at Sweet Briar College from 1980 until 1997. He remained at the college as a research professor of biology.
I was privileged to interview Brower on a number of occasions, including when Barbara Kingsolver came to Sweet Briar to talk about her 2012 novel, “Flight Behavior.” The migration of monarchs figured largely in that story, and Kingsolver consulted with Brower while writing it.
The novel posits that with climate change, instead of heading all the way to Mexico for a winter refuge, the butterflies stop in the mountains of Tennessee. After the talk, I asked Brower if he thought that was really possible. He said yes.
In 2014, Brower signed a petition to the federal government to protect the monarch under the Endangered Species Act.
While sedentary populations of monarchs in the Caribbean islands, Trinidad, Bermuda and South America are not endangered, Brower believed their migratory cousins could die out.
Brower’s work was often featured in the mainstream media, including in The New York Times, which published a tribute July 24.
“Dr. Brower illuminated the story of the monarch, which can fly several thousand miles from places like Maine and the Dakotas to a winter home in the mountains of central Mexico. What makes the trip particularly astonishing is that the butterflies arriving in Mexico have never been to the wintering grounds; they are the descendants of monarchs that migrated from Mexico in a previous cycle. (The butterflies breed as they go north and then die.),” the article said.
“If you’ve ever looked inside the brain of a butterfly, it’s about the size of a pinhead,” Dr. Brower said in a 1990 interview with the Times, “and yet the minicomputer inside that pinhead has all the necessary information to get them to Mexico without having been there before.”
In the 1980s, Brower worked with groups in Mexico and the Mexican government to establish sanctuaries to protect the fir forests where the butterflies mass. This unique ecosystem normally allows the monarchs to survive in a state akin to hibernation without freezing to death, although cold snaps have killed them in the millions. Even with protections, the forests continue to be under threat from logging.
Brower also was concerned about the effects that herbicides and genetically engineered crops in the U.S. have on the butterflies, which depend on the milkweed plant in their larval stage.
Brower was not only an expert on monarchs, he also was fascinated by moths. I once attended a lecture he and his wife, Linda Fink, gave at the Rockfish Wildlife Sanctuary. They both lamented the decline of many species in their lifetimes.
For now, I lament the loss of this lovely man and pioneering scientist.