The lovely Atala Butterfly is endangered because of the decline of its Florida host plant.
The Coontie, found from Georgia down through Florida and on to the Caribbean, is the only member of the cycad family native to North America. (The cycads are an ancient tropical group, somewhat similar to palms, that dates all the way back to the time of the dinosaurs.) It is a low-growing plant with a short stem that produces a wide rosette of stiff feathery fern-shaped leaves. Individual plants are either male or female: the males produce narrow cones which generate pollen, and this is carried by a few species of insect to the female cones, which are larger and look like a hand grenade. The seeds are large and bright red.
The taxonomy of the Coontie is a matter of fierce debate. Some authorities lump the Florida Coontie together with the Caribbean variety as the single species Zamia pumila, others consider the Florida type as a separate species Zamia integrifolia, and still others split the Florida population into as many as four different species, depending on habitat.
The name “Coontie” comes from the Seminole Native Americans, who used the plant as an important food source. Although all parts of the leaves, seeds and roots are laced with a glycoside chemical known as cycasin, which is toxic to humans, the Seminole learned how to make the starchy roots edible by boiling and soaking them in a long complicated process.
After the Seminoles were driven into the inhospitable Everglades, Florida settlers also adopted the Coontie as a food plant, calling it the Florida Arrowroot. The roots were collected and crushed into a powdery flour that was sold throughout the southeast and sometimes exported to Europe. The Coontie also suffered from the loss of its preferred habitat in the understory of Florida’s once-extensive upland pine forests. By the first years of the 20th century, the plant, suffering from overcollection and habitat loss, was extinct in Puerto Rico and Haiti, and had dwindled to small patchy remnants—most of them in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Florida, and southern Georgia. And this had a drastic effect on the Atala Butterfly.
The Florida Atala Butterfly (Eumaeus atala florida) is, with a wingspan of about one and a half inches, the largest member of the Hairstreak family to be found in the state. It is strikingly colored, being velvety black with conspicuous blue and red patches on the wings and body (the males have iridescent green patches). The caterpillars are equally prominent—they are bright orangish-red with two rows of yellow dots.
The bright colors are a warning. The Coontie is the only native plant in Florida upon which the Atala can lay its eggs, and when the young caterpillars hatch in about five days they are able to eat the leaves and extract the toxic cycasin and store it in their own bodies. Reaching about an inch in length, the caterpillars are voracious feeders, and even a small number can strip the leaves from a Coontie plant. After about two and a half weeks, the caterpillar molts into a bright orange chrysalis, attached to the underside of a leaf, and about ten days later the adult emerges. In the wild, adult Atalas live for around three weeks—long enough to find a mate and start the process all over again. The adults sip nectar from a variety of Florida wildflowers, including such common plants as Beautyberry and Wild Coffee.
The toxins extracted from the Coontie, meanwhile, are strong enough to sicken most predators who try to eat the eggs, caterpillars, or adult butterflies. Birds quickly learn to leave them alone, and even spiders will cut Atala Butterflies from their webs and let them escape. Only a few lizards and frogs seem to be capable of tolerating the poisons.
But the Coontie was the only suitable food plant for the Atala caterpillars, so, despite its seeming invulnerability to predators, the butterfly’s numbers plummeted rapidly as its sole host plant disappeared due to human action. By the 1920s the Atala was seldom seen: by 1937 it was considered to be extinct in Florida.
Then, in 1959, scattered specimens began to be collected, and in 1979, a local butterfly enthusiast happened upon a colony of Atalas on a barrier island near Miami, where it was surviving on a small population of Coontie plants. At around this same time, garden enthusiasts began a systematic campaign to recover the near-extinct Coontie as well as other Florida natives, and soon horticulturalists were raising the plants in their gardens. This, in turn, allowed the spread of the Atala Butterflies who fed on them: the Atalas also began to adapt to various species of non-native cycads like Cardboard Plants which began to appear in the backyards of plant fanciers. Slowly, the Coonties and the Butterflies began to reappear in areas where they had not been seen for almost half a century.
Today, the Atala Butterfly can be found in high numbers in some areas of southern Florida, though its range so far remains quite limited to the Miami/Ft Lauderdale/Boca Raton area, especially in suburban areas with lots of gardens. In fact on some spots the butterfly has become so numerous that it has become a pest to cycad enthusiasts, who sometimes see their expensive imported ornamental plants devoured by the red and yellow caterpillars. So state wildlife officials have begun a sort of deportation program, removing caterpillars by hand from backyards where they are not wanted and relocating them to areas where there are established wild Coontie patches to support them.
In many areas, local butterfly societies are planting stands of Coontie in a deliberate effort to lure the brightly-colored Atalas in and give them a home. And a number of science centers have begun programs to educate people about the Atala’s plight, to captive-raise butterflies for release to the wild, and to encourage backyard gardeners to provide host plants to help the insects rebuild their populations and recolonize the areas from which they were exterminated.
I was fortunate enough to see an Atala in the wild, at the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge near Boynton Beach. The University of Florida has an email “hotline” to report Atala sightings, and after I sent a photo they confirmed that it was indeed an Atala (some of the other Hairstreaks look similar) and thanked me for helping with their field research.