Butterfly comes back from near extinction

Atala being reintroduced in Florida

By KEVIN LOLLAR, klollar@news-press.com     (c) News Press - Fort Meyers, FL  from web archives.    Originally Published by news-press.com on May 19, 2004.

Where would the Atala be without the coontie?    Extinct.
This is an adult atala butterfly that was raised at Gulf Coast Butterflies in Naples. The species almost became extinct, but now is being reintroduced to the environment. The Atala’s host plant, the coontie, is being used increasingly in landscaping, possibly ensuring the propagation of the butterfly.
GARTH FRANCIS/news-press.com 

In fact, the Atala butterfly, a Florida native whose dazzling colors rival those of coral reef fish, almost disappeared from the wild, all because the tiny insect’s host plant, the Coontie, was itself virtually wiped out.

Now, both the Atala and the Coontie are making a comeback.

Atalas have reappeared in small numbers on Florida’s east coast, and the Calusa Nature Center and Planetarium is trying to reintroduce them to Lee County through a breeding program at the center’s butterfly exhibit.

“I always like to see species that were once here and that are not here anymore because of man brought back by man,” said Michael Simonik, nature center executive director.

The nature center received three atala pupae from Gulf Coast Butterflies in Collier County, which got them on May 3; the adults emerged, laid eggs on potted coontie and died. The life span of an adult atala is about 10 days.

Mary Kay Cassani, an instructor in Florida Gulf Coast University’s Division of Ecological Studies, was thrilled to hear about the nature center’s atala effort.

“The only known colony is in Miami, so it’s so cool to have them over here,” Cassani said. “I’m just excited to be able to go see them while they’re still around.”

More Information

Scientific name: Eumaeus atala
Common names: Atala, atala hairstreak, coontie hairstreak
Range: Has been reported from Dade County north to Martin County. There are unconfirmed reports of atala in Collier and Hillsborough counties.
Size: Larvae (caterpillars) reach 1.25 inches; adults have wingspan of 1.5 inches.
Status: Listed as C2, which means it is a candidate for federal protection. Recommendations for state protection have been proposed but never acted upon.
Some nectar plants for atala: Saw-toothed palmetto, cabbage palm, avocado, Florida powder puff, butterfly bush, white indigo berry

What: Calusa Nature Center
When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday
Where: 3450 Ortiz Ave.
Admission: Adults, $7; ages 3-12, $4. Group rates available for 15 or more people.
More information: http://www.calusanature.com/ or 275-3435

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Like all butterflies, atalas need a specific host plant on which their larvae feed. The host plant for atalas is a coontie, a relative of the sago palm whose primary natural habitat is pine flatwood.

Coontie plants contain a natural toxin, which atala larvae accumulate in their bodies and use to repel birds.

Without coontie, adult atalas have no place to lay eggs, and no eggs means no new generations.

Wild coonties’ demise began with starch: Long before Europeans arrived in Florida, Native Americans used coontie as a source of starch. Coontie, in fact, is a Seminole word that means “bread” or “white root” because the roots can be made into flour.

Settlers continued the practice on an industrial level. In the early 1900s, several commercial factories in South Florida processed coontie roots for the manufacture of arrowroot biscuits.

Coontie plants started disappearing throughout Florida, and so did the atala butterfly. By 1965, federal and state authorities thought the atala was extinct.

“Everyone was harvesting coontie for starch, and there was just all the habitat destruction — all the pine flatwoods are gone,” Simonik said. “The atala is making a comeback because people are using coontie in landscaping and because people are becoming interested in butterflies.

“Actually, some people are obsessed with butterflies, which is great,” Simonik said. “I’m obsessed with butterflies.”

Simonik would like to see a wild population of atala butterflies in the county, and a breeding program is the place to start.

Eventually, the nature center plans to plant coontie outside its butterfly enclosure and release atala there.

Only one of 200 butterfly larvae in the wild lives to reproduce; the nature center’s survival rate among the 10 to 15 species at the butterfly exhibit is about 90 percent.

Larvae of the atala butterfly eat their way to adulthood on a coontie plant at Gulf Coast Butterflies in Naples. The atala butterfly almost became extinct.
GARTH FRANCIS/news-press.com

“We protect our plants from storms and fire, and we’re not bulldozing in here,” Simonik said. “So we have good success, as long as we keep the frogs and lizards out. Anoles (lizards) are the worst. If we get an anole in here, it’ll sit on the screen and just chomp on any butterfly that lands near it.”

While the only documented wild atala butterflies in the United States are on Florida’s east coast, they certainly don’t make up a thriving population, said Daniel Culbert, an Okeechobee County extension agent and author of “Florida Coontie and Atala Butterflies.”

“You do see a couple flitting here and there,” Culbert said. “We tried to establish them over there, but for one reason or another, they didn’t want to establish. It’s probably the fact that there are not a lot of coontie around. The environment has changed from a natural scrub and pine habitat to whatever you want to call an urban landscape.”

If the nature center’s atala breeding program is successful, Lee County residents can help the butterfly come back by planting coontie, Simonik said; people can help other butterflies by planting other native host and nectar plants.

“It’s all about recreating the wildlife habitat we used to have here instead of creating a sterile, pesticide yard,” Simonic said “Get rid of some of your lawn and plant some native plants.”