A Nearly Extinct Butterfly Makes a Comeback in South Florida
By Richard Levine
An article published in the journal Florida Entomologist tells the story of a butterfly that was nearly gone, but is now recovering. In fact, it’s doing so well that some people consider it to be a pest.
Back in 1888, the Atala butterfly was so numerous that it was called “the most conspicuous insect” in South Florida, but half a century later, in the 1950s, it was thought to be “probably extinct.” Fortunately, the butterfly was actually hiding deep in the remaining pine rocklands and tropical hammocks of coastal southeastern Florida, where its host plant still remained.
The Atala butterfly (Eumaeus atala) relies on a plant called coontie (Zamia integrifolia) in the same way that monarch butterflies rely on milkweed species. Atala females lay their eggs on coontie, the only native cycad in North America — and only on coontie (or on other cycads brought to South Florida as ornamental plants) — and after the eggs hatch, the caterpillars munch on the coontie leaves.
Unfortunately for the butterfly, people also like coontie. Native Americans and European settlers harvested the roots as a source of starch that was capable of withstanding the high humidity and temperatures of Florida. Although the coontie plant contains numerous neurotoxins, they are water-soluble and the plant was heavily utilized as a mold-proof harvest. It was exploited to the extent that it was simultaneously sold during the Indian-American Wars to both the Indians and the U.S. Army, and it was also sold to European markets as gourmet flour.
Previously, so much coontie grew along the New River in Fort Lauderdale that the Indians called it the “Coontie Hatchee,” meaning the “the Coontie River.” But by the 1920s, all of the coontie plants within a reasonable distance had been harvested.
The butterfly, of course, went down with the plant.
Luckily, the University of Florida’s McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiveristy received donated preserved specimens of Atala butterflies, which offered clues about them. The specimens had been collected in pine rockland habitat in southeast Florida (now part of the Everglades National Park), so scientists knew for sure that they once lived there. They also knew that some coontie plants were still growing there.
In 1979, a local naturalist “discovered” an Atala butterfly colony on one of the barrier islands along the coast of Miami, and that’s when the recovery began.
“As far as we know, every extant colony in South Florida originated from that colony,” said Sandy Koi, one of the co-authors. “It is only because of the dedication of scientists and local citizens that the butterfly has recovered to the point that it may be considered a pest in botanical gardens and developments that use the also-recovering coontie plants as ornamental landscaping.”
That’s right. The Atala butterfly was incredibly abundant, then nearly extinct, and now its numbers are high enough to annoy people as the larvae eat their expensive plants to the ground. On the other hand, many individuals and botanical gardens seek out this rare and beautiful butterfly for their gardens, so they plant and grow coontie as Atala food.
“I have been using this fact in order to implement an integrated pest management method,” Sandy said. “Along with dedicated volunteers, we remove the unwanted colonies of both plants and butterfly immature life stages, and install the removed pupae or larvae into the gardens that want to host them.”
In recent years, there’s been a big push in South Florida to plant native ornamentals back into landscapes and gardens. As a result, there are coontie plants all over the southern counties. Now that the host is back in the landscape, the butterfly is back too.
“I have this butterfly in my garden since I grow the host plant,” said Thomas Chouvenc, a researcher at the University of Florida, based in Fort Lauderdale. “It’s a delight to see them fly around. The plants get munched, but they always come back”.
The article, published in Florida Entomologist, also revealed new insights on the unique biology of the Atala butterfly.
Read more at:
– New and Revised Life History of the Florida Hairstreak Eumaeus atala (Lepidoptera: Lycaenidae) with Notes on its Current Conservation Status
– Featured Creatures: The Atala Butterfly
Richard Levine is Communications Program Manager at the Entomological Society of America and editor of the Entomology Today Blog.
You can see the butterfly and the host plant at Mounts Botanical Garden in Palm Beach County.
Hi. I’m in eastern WPB. I have about 30 Atala catepillars on coontie right now, and while I realize they have some noxious chemical protection am wondering if bird netting is appropriate for them. Any ideas if i should or should not interfere with protection?
One of my coontie palms delivered last week came with hitchhiking caterpillars. They are in a popup for protection from predators. I have their nectar sources. It’s my first year butterfly gardening.
Yes, bird netting works great. you can email me directly at sandykoi2009 at gmail dot com
You can also see the butterfly at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden (http://www.fairchildgarden.org/) where the Atala and the coontie happily live in a delicate balance!
Today I saw three atala butterflies in my yard in downtown Vero Beach in Indian River County. I have a row of large coontie in the front of the house. I have photos.
Yesterday there were several atala butterflies at Green Cay Nature Center in Boynton Beach FL.
I live in Miami.
Email me at sandykoi2009 at gmail dot com. We can get Atalas for you in Miami.
Where can I get the Atala caterpillars? I have the host Coontie plants. I saw some eggs and subsequently found Atala shortly after, but no colony established. I would love to have an established colony.
I live in Miami.
Michael, We can help you establish a colony. Please email me sandykoi2009 at gmail dot com!
Could you help me too have an establish a colony of Atala butterfly. I have a butterfly garden in Miami with a lot of coonties. About 4 years ago I was successful with my Atala project, having about 12 or more of them in my garden and having them lay eggs on the coonties but after the fumigation for the mosquitoes (my guess) they disappeared. I have visited several nurseries in the area, including Richard Lions, where I initially bought the young coonties with the eggs but have not found the butterfly anymore. Please, let me know. Thanks
Eros, yes, we can help you. Email me at email@example.com
This afternoon had several Atala butterflies in my yard in Margate fla. I have never seen them in this part of Broward county.
Feel free to email me at sandykoi2009 at gmail dot com. Would love to hear more about your colony!
Hi Michelle, Please let me know where in Margate you are; send me a message at sandykoi2009 at gmail.com.
I live in southern Brevard County. I obviously have some kind of coontie ornamental. The leaves have been completely eaten away. Yesterday I saw an Atala on the bush. Upon closer inspection I have found at least 25 caterpillars munching away on the branches, Looks like the Atala is moving north!
Please email me at sandykoi2009 at gmail dot com. Brevard Zoo has a colony in their display…would like to know where you live in relation.
Hi just took a photo of the coonti butterfly sipping necter from my garlic vine! Fabulous to see!
Wish everyone would email me at sandykoi2009 at gmail dot come! Where are you? What’s the scientific name for your garlic vine?!
I live in Hollywood, FL, Broward County and have Atala with Cooney plant in our back yard. Many caterpillars and pupa. Usually see one butterfly only. So excited.
I have had an explosion of atala butterflies hatch twice in Boca Raton in the past 4 months! I’ve had two coontie plants for at least 6 yrs and only had a few hatch before. I also planted an indigoberry tree for the butterfly’s nectar source. They are all over the wild coffee, cocoplum and spanish needle flowers and flying everywhere! So awesome! I’m concerned that the plants will not revive in time for there to be enough food for the caterpillars. I think I need to purchase more coonties soon to continue the colony.
AJ, how many coontie plants do you have?
The plants came back beautifully!
Please let me know where in Boca you are; send me an email sandykoi2009 at gmail.com.
Well it’s June 2020 and we are in the midst of the pandemic. My two original coontie plants made a great comeback and I hope to see the Atala again. Didn’t see many last year.
I’m willing to except some larvae. I have a coontie patch in my butterfly garden. I live in N Miami Beach.
Just found and identified Atala pupae on my tall coontie plants here in Brevarad County Florida. Who is tracking the locations of the butterfly?
Hi Joyce! Email me at sandykoi2009 at gmaildotcom!!
Dear everyone! Please email me at sandykoi2009 at gmail dot com. The butterflies ARE in Brevard County; most likely originally from Brevard Zoo; they have self-established colonies from there to the barrier islands. I am still tracking locations as is Ken Gioeli at St Lucie IFAS. Please let us both know the locations of your colonies!
Good morning. I live in Brevard County and have Atala butterflies everywhere. I absolutely love them. For tracking purposes I live on Crescent Drive in Melbourne, FL 32901. I lived at this location for 20 years and me and my lovely neighbor have completely native yards. This is our reward. Good day!
Hi Kim, Thanks for letting me know…again, my email is sandykoi2009 at gmail dot com….I can send you published work on the butterfly of you want it!
Hello. I live in Naples and I have seen them flying around the Chase Bank parking lot of the Berkshire Plaza at the intersection of Radio Rd & Santa Barbara. They have a lot of Coontie in the parking lot landscape.
Thanks for the note!! There are quite a few introduced colonies in Naples and more self-established are cropping up constantly!
I have just found a.dead specimen in the Naples FL
Area. This is the first one I have noticed here.
Found one at my home in Stuart, Martin County today. Seems like they are expanding north. A beautiful butterfly.