University Park’s Monarch Butterfly Wrangler

by Paula Bosse

monarch_life_colorCarl Anderson & friends (John Dominis, Time-Life Pictures/Getty Image)

by Paula Bosse

Carl Axel Anderson (1892-1983) was a mild-mannered internal revenue executive by day and a mild-mannered Monarch butterfly expert by night (and weekend … and probably every waking second). Anderson had been interested in insects and butterflies from an early age, and he studied entomology at the University of Minnesota and Columbia. When he was away from the office, he was raising, tagging, tracking, and, perhaps, training Monarch butterflies at his University Park home on Centenary Avenue, which writer Frank X. Tolbert dubbed “the Butterfly Ranch.” Even the neighborhood children — who called themselves The Centenary Monarchs — joined in and learned all about Monarchs from Anderson, their butterfly mentor.

Anderson’s primary interest was studying the migration patterns of the Monarch butterfly, and, conveniently, Dallas was on their pathway, twice a year, so he had a front-row seat. Not only did he observe them passing overhead, he also raised them from eggs laid on the underside of his milkweed plants, enjoyed them as caterpillars, and when they became butterflies, he “branded” their wings painlessly (see below) and released them into the wild, hoping to be able to track their migration from fellow butterfly spotters around the country. He wrote letters to newspapers around the country and mailed hundreds of postcards to groups and individuals, hoping to get his message out. His message, in part:

Monarch butterflies raised from the egg are being released. A number is placed on their wings before they are released. Members of the public are invited to join the observers on the magic carpet of these wings to see where it will take us. Invite your friends and associates to come along, too…. Examine the wings of the Monarch…for numbers or other marks. Allow the butterfly to go on its way after your observation. Please report any observation where marked wings are found….”

In 1950, big news was made when one of his butterflies — one with the number “9” on its wing — was reported to have been seen in California by a 10-year old boy named Ben Harris in Santa Monica, California. That must have been one of the happiest moments of Anderson’s life.

Every year during Monarch migration over Texas, Mr. Anderson was a reliable go-to story for the local media. Particularly fascinated by Anderson and his “butterfly ranch” was Dallas Morning News writer Frank X Tolbert, who wrote about him numerous times. A very early profile by Tolbert rhapsodized about Anderson’s “pet” butterfly Pete which set the tone for all his very sweet subsequent articles about Anderson that appeared over the years. (Next time you’re wandering around in the Dallas News archives, check out Tolbert’s story “An Affectionate Fellow Was Pete the Butterfly” published on May 16, 1948 — but if you like happy endings, beware of the last two paragraphs of the story: personally, I’d advise readers to stop reading when Pete sets off on his journey.)

Anderson was the subject of newspaper and magazine articles all over the country, but the high point was, undoubtedly, his appearance in the pages of Life magazine in 1954, accompanied by the striking photo of him with several of his butterfly pals resting on his face.

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The caption for this photo reads: “Mottled with Monarchs, butterfly breeder Carl Anderson stares serenely ahead as the domesticated insects swarm all over his face.” (That is NOT a “swarm,” Life!)

The two-page photo spread was titled “Monarch Man: Texan Breeds Bushels of Them To Help Map Butterfly Migration.”

Each spring Mr. Anderson raises hundreds of Monarchs in cages. If released, they flutter about him, looking for a sip of sugar water. When the Monarchs mature, he brands them and turns them out, alerting friends across the U.S. to watch for them. One of Anderson’s butterflies turned up 1,200 miles away. But instead of clarifying the northward migration it added another enigma by flying cross-country and winding up almost directly west of Dallas. (Life, May 24, 1954)

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Anderson died at the age of 91, having spent the bulk of his long life engrossed in the study of his beloved Monarch butterflies. This excerpt from a 1955 interview shows a glimpse of the wonder and enthusiasm that kept him fascinated by the butterflies his entire life:

“Just at dusk on Oct. 26, the wind shifted to the north with a velocity of 15 MPH. It brought in a huge cloud of Monarchs riding ahead of the cool front. The cloud changed into the shape of a tremendous, brown, moving carpet of unusual surging design. A signal from some leader or leaders in the great flight designated a grove of our hackberry trees as the resting place for the night. Down came the flying carpet of thousands of butterflies. And in a few minutes every twig was bent by the weight of Monarchs. They took off in small groups the next morning, leaving our Dallas hackberries bare of leaves.” (DMN, May 3, 1955)

Thanks, Carl. I wish I’d known you.

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Sources & Notes

Color photo of Carl Anderson by John Dominis (Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image). It is from the same session that produced the slightly different black and white image featured in Life magazine.

The profile of Anderson (which includes the text and photos reproduced above) appeared in the May 24, 1954 issue of Life; it can be accessed here.

Read another profile of Anderson from the Bakersfield Californian, “Lepidopterist Traces Branded Butterflies” (July 11, 1949), here.

A bunch of Monarch butterfly sources:

  • “The Monarch Butterfly’s Annual Cycle” from the Monarch Butterfly Fund, is here.
  • “The Monarch Butterfly Journey North News,” a regularly updated blog on the current (overwintering/leading-up-to-Spring 2105) migration, is here.
  • A regularly updated map of Monarch sightings (currently at Winter 2015, showing Monarchs warming up in the bullpen along the Texas coast) is here.
  • An animated map of 2014’s Spring migration is here. UPDATE: An animated map of the Fall/Winter 2015 migration is here.
  • “Monarch Butterflies Could Gain Endangered Species Protection,” from the Scientific American blog, is here. (“Populations of the iconic and beloved Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus plexippus) have dropped an astonishing 96.5 percent over the past few decades, from an estimated 1 billion in the mid-1990s to just 35 million in early 2014.”)
  • Information on the Monarch butterfly conservation program — and some beautiful photographs — can be found on the World Wildlife Fund site, here.

Keep your eyes peeled — they’ll be on their way soon

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Copyright © 2015 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.

 

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