The painted lady, Vanessa cardui , is a migratory butterfly that performs an annual multi-generational migration between Europe and North Africa. Its seasonal appearance south of the Sahara in autumn is well known and has led to the suggestion that it results from extremely long migratory flights by European butterflies to seasonally exploit the Sahel and the tropical savannah. However, this possibility has remained unproven. Here, we analyse the isotopic composition of butterflies from seven European and seven African countries to provide new support for this hypothesis. Each individual was assigned a geographical natal origin, based on its wing stable hydrogen isotope (δ2Hw) value and a predicted δ2Hw basemap for Europe and northern Africa. Natal assignments of autumn migrants collected south of the Sahara confirmed long-distance movements (of 4000 km or more) starting in Europe. Samples from Maghreb revealed a mixed origin of migrants, with most individuals with a European origin, but others having originated in the Sahel. Therefore, autumn movements are not only directed to northwestern Africa, but also include southward and northward flights across the Sahara. Through this remarkable behaviour, the productive but highly seasonal region south of the Sahara is incorporated into the migratory circuit of V. cardui .
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