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This tiny butterfly was thought to be gone in Florida. Gardeners and naturalists brought it back

A black butterfly with a red body and blue spots eats from a daisy-like wildflower called a Spanish needle
Daylina Miller
At USF Botanical Gardens, an Atala butterfly eats its morning meal.

Atalas are small butterflies with inky black wings that are speckled with iridescent blue spots, and a bright red body.

Craig Huegel smiled like a proud father as he gazed at a little black Atala butterfly, no bigger than a moth, clambering on a daisy-like wildflower called a Spanish needle, and sucking nectar from its golden center.

"They are so gorgeous," said Huegel, director of the Botanical Garden at the University of South Florida.

Once thought to be gone forever from Florida, the story of the Atala butterfly (Eumaeus atala), is one Huegel has been involved with for years. He’s written many books about gardening for wildlife, and how to use native plants that coax birds and butterflies to one’s yard.

The Atala’s story is particularly inspiring, according to Huegel, because it shows how people can fight back against the factors that are pushing many butterflies to the brink these days, such as climate change, pesticide use and loss of habitat. 

To that end, "the Atalas may be the best story, because it shows if you put something in your yard, you get something in return," said Huegel.

Daylina Miller
Craig Huegel, director of USF Botanical Gardens .

Presumed extinct in Florida

People often think of flowers as drawing butterflies to an area, but butterflies also need their host plants, where they lay their eggs and whose leaves provides a food source for the caterpillar, or larval stage.

The Atalas’ preferred host plant is the coontie plant (Zamia integrifolia). It’s only native cycad in the United States, and an ancient plant that thrived when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, and even before.

More than a century ago, coontie plants seemed to grow everywhere in the Florida wild, particularly along rivers’ edges.

“It was one of those 'Oh, my God' moments. And, you know, I double checked to make sure I was seeing what I believed I was seeing and sure enough, that's what they were."
Naturalist and botanist Roger Hammer

The plant is poisonous to eat raw, but indigenous people figured out how to make coontie edible, by rinsing out the toxic components from the root and pounding it into a flour.

Once European settlers learned the process, “they were harvesting it unsustainably,” said Forest Hecker, a community educator at the Sarasota extension office of UF-IFAS.

A flour mill industry exploded in Florida, as the coontie flour — sometimes called arrowroot — was used to provide World War I rations and make popular snacks like animal crackers.

“No one was farming it. Because it takes like 10-20 years to be harvestable, they wiped it out. And because of that, this butterfly, by the 1920s, was pretty much extinct,” Hecker said, referring to the Florida population of Atalas, which are also native to the Cuba and the Bahamas.

How the butterflies come to life:

A rediscovery

In Homestead, in south Florida, naturalist and botanist Roger Hammer recalled that his 1965 edition of the Peterson’s Field Guide to Butterflies listed Florida Atalas as “presumed extinct.”

That changed one day in 1979.

Hammer went for a walk on Virginia Key, a small island between Miami and Key Biscayne, thinking he’d photograph some wildflowers, when he spotted a wild coontie plant with some odd creatures on it.

“There were these red larvae with yellow spots down their sides feeding on the leaves and I wasn't sure what they were,” Hammer said in a recent interview with WUSF.

“And being an inquisitive naturalist, I collected some, brought them home and reared them. And lo and behold they were Florida Atala butterflies,” he said.

At left is a red and yellow Atala caterpillar, at right a brown pupa as its forms its chrysalis
Kerry Sheridan
Atala caterpillars, or larvae, are red with yellow dots (see left). When they move into the pupa, or chrysalis stage, they look like a brown capsule (at right). These are in Pelican Cove, Sarasota, 2024.

“It was one of those 'Oh, my God' moments. And, you know, I double checked to make sure I was seeing what I believed I was seeing and sure enough, that's what they were," Hammer added.

“So from there I reared more on cultivated coonties, to where, when I had enough, I started moving them out into other areas to survive in natural areas and preserves including Everglades National Park,” Hammer said.

The first person Hammer said he called was Oron “Sonny” Bass, who was a biologist at Everglades National Park at the time.

Bass confirmed Hammer’s account.

“We knew that they hadn't been seen in a long time. And then the suspicion was that the butterfly may no longer be in Florida, but you have to be careful. Trying to prove extinction is not the easiest thing to do, especially on something like butterflies,” Bass said.

Maybe they were there all along. Or maybe they were blown in by a big storm. It’s hard to know for sure.

“Nobody knew that they were still around. And who knows how long that population was there and I just happened upon them,” said Hammer.

Hammer’s rediscovery of the Atala butterfly was momentous, and instrumental to rebuilding the population. National Geographic ran a short article on Hammer’s finding in 1996, describing how the butterflies had begun to spread.

Today, Hammer acknowledges that he told the magazine he’d found the larvae on Key Biscayne, which is down the road from the actual location on Virginia Key, to protect their fragile numbers.

“I did that purposely to throw off any potential butterfly collectors,” Hammer said.

Hammer said he has also discovered other rarities in Florida, like a couple of orchids that weren’t known to exist here, and a pair of Bahama woodstar hummingbirds.

His advice: be inquisitive, make sure to get host plants as well as nectar flowers to attract butterflies, and avoid pesticides in the garden.

“People might be spraying pesticides to kill something they don't like, but it's going to be killing things they do like," Hammer said. "Like butterflies.”

A Florida-Friendly Landscaping™ Tale of Survival and Resurgence (Part II): Atala Butterflies

A neighborhood's success story

Carrying on Hammer's legacy, a new generation is now helping spread Atalas to their own neighborhoods.

Those interested can come to the butterfly garden outside the UF-IFAS office in Sarasota, place some young potted coontie plants near the butterflies, which will lay eggs, then move the plants to a new location where the butterflies can become established.

Otherwise, “they really stay where they were born. If they have their host plant and they have the right flowers, they're not going to go more than like an acre range," said Hecker.

Janet Paisley is a wintertime Sarasota resident who recently brought Atalas into her bayside neighborhood of Pelican Cove.

She bought some coontie plants at a native plant nursery, then dropped them off at the butterfly garden outside Hecker’s office in south Sarasota.

“And five days later, Forest emailed me and said, ‘you better come and get these, you have hundreds of eggs on these,’” said Paisley.

A woman in a cargo jacket and binoculars reaches down toward a coontie plant
Kerry Sheridan
Janet Paisley brought Atalas to Pelican Cove, into an area that was replanted with coonties after a hurricane wiped out many trees and plants.

So she did, then brought the potted plants to a little preserve in her neighborhood and put them down near some established coontie plants, which are near other nectar plants that the butterflies could feed on.

A year later, Atalas fly around here freely, she said.

“They can remind us that we need native plants to restore the ecosystem, because when we have only alien plants here, they can't support our native wildlife,” said Paisley.

A few residents walked by the preserve area, and an Atala landed right on Gill Murrey's arm. They fell silent for a moment, holding their breath, then giggled as it flittered away.

“We have always been a very environmentally conscious community,” said Ellen Hales, president of the Pelican Cove Board.

“It's really fabulous to walk around and just take in the nature.”

Gill and Hank Murrey and Ellen Hales (at right) delight in the Pelican Cove community's butterfly garden
Kerry Sheridan
Gill and Hank Murrey and Ellen Hales (at right) delight in the Pelican Cove community's butterfly garden

Risks remain

Atala butterflies were never listed as federally endangered, because when the Endangered Species Act became law in 1973, Atala butterflies were already presumed gone forever from Florida.

That’s a big part of why it made a comeback, according to Sandy Koi, who teaches at Florida International University and has been studying Atala butterflies for about 20 years.

“If it had been listed as endangered, none of us would be able to touch it. Nobody would be able to move it from place to place, introduce it, make it part of their garden,” said Koi.

Today, Atala sightings can be tracked on apps like iNaturalist, which shows them well up the east and west coasts of Florida, far beyond their traditional range in southeast Florida.

Daylina Miller

A spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said Atala butterflies are not listed as endangered or threatened on any federal or state registers.

NatureServe, which tracks species globally, described them as “globally secure” but “imperiled” in Florida, as of November 2022.

Koi said they don’t pose any threat of upsetting ecosystems in central Florida. And while their recovery is “amazing,” they are not out of danger, she warned.

“It should be still considered imperiled because of the fact that if we take away the host plant again, we pave over too much more habitat, we have a devastating hurricane, a huge tropical storm … Any of those factors could wipe this butterfly out again,” she said.

Some observers say warming temperatures from climate change, which are detrimental to many butterflies, may actually be good for the Atala, allowing them to thrive in central and even some northern areas of Florida.

A screenshot of iNaturalist.org shows Atala sightings in orange, along the east and west coasts of Florida
A screenshot of iNaturalist.org shows Atala sightings in orange along the east and west coasts of Florida

According to Craig Huegel, at the USF Botanical Garden, climate change brings with it the risk of more extreme weather, like the odd cold snap, which could kill them.

He said he has given caterpillars to friends who are “conservation-minded individuals” in the past, and might ask them to return the favor if his Atalas ever die off.

“Even if long-term they're going to freeze out of my backyard, I might start over again,” said Huegel.

“I think anything we do that brings us into nature, and gives us the satisfaction of knowing we're improving the world around us, is important,” he added.

“Conservation should be taken into our own hands.”

I cover health and K-12 education – two topics that have overlapped a lot since the pandemic began.
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