You're looking at something of an environmental success story. Miracle might be a fitting word. Almost like finding a doodoo bird centuries after the last of the species was believed to have expired. Fifty years ago, scientists believed the atala butterfly, Eumaeus atala, to be extinct in Florida. Obviously, it's not. Rare, certainly, but not extinct.
Like many butterfly species, the fate of the atala is tied inextricably to the fate of its sole host plant, a cycad called the coontie, Zamia integrifolia. Cycads are ancient plants that resemble palm trees. Unfortunately for the atala, the coontie, once common among Florida's pinelands and hammocks, was a major source of starch; massive industrial-scale harvesting in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, plus the the loss of habitat caused by development, made coontie scarce.
And with the coontie, so went the atala. When coontie was plentiful, so was the atala. As coontie disappeared, so did the atala. By the 1930s, this once abundant butterfly had become rare; by 1965 it was considered extinct. And experts continued to believe so until 1979, when Dade County naturalist Roger Hammer discovered a small population on Key Biscayne. It's still a mystery what Hammer had found, whether it was a remnant of the original South Florida population or a few strays that had wandered over from the Bahamas.
One theory is that the atala survived by adapting its taste buds and using sago palms, a cycad native to Japan, and other cycads commonly used in South Florida landscapes, as hosts. In any regard, coontie has made a comeback not in the wild but as a landscaping plant, and so has the atala. In fact, the atala's association with coontie has aided the cycad by making it popular in butterfly gardens. Even so, the atala is still rare. Note in the photo above, that's an atala female laying eggs on an emerging coontie branch.
Adult atala butterflies depend on coontie much the way adult monarchs depend on milkweeds. The plant contains toxins, which atala caterpillars absorb when they munch on coontie leaves the same way that monarch larvae take in the toxins of milkweed. Those toxins remain in the body as they mature; If a hungry bird decides to dine on a bright red atala, it will be a meal he won't forget. And that's the point. One butterfly dies, others live.
The atala isn't federally protected under the Endangered Species Act (there is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that the atala was once declared extinct and can't be protected because there is no mechanism within the law to "undeclare" it) but Florida has listed it a "species of greatest conservation need." The Nature Conservancy considers it "very rare." Its range extends from Miami-Dade County to Martin County, but it has been spotted as far north as Indian River County and in Pinellas County. There are records of it wandering as far north as southern Illinois. It's also native in the Bahamas, Cuba and the Caymans, where the Nature Conservancy also considers it threatened.
We first saw the atala during a visit to the High Ridge Scrub Natural Area in April 2014. It's since become a common sight among the coontie at Green Cay Nature Center and nectaring on the native lantana in center's butterfly garden.
The atala is unmistakable, with its bright red abdomen, black wings, with irirdescent spots, either green or blue, and a bright red spot at the base of the hindwings.
Atalas are the largest hairstreak butterfly found in Florida. They're members of Lycaenidae, the gossamer-winged butterfly family.