Completely Connected: Coontie & Atala Butterfly

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Dr. Zak Gezon, Disney’s Butterfly Conservation Manager, gave a great talk at the fifth session of the 2018 Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory (FMEL) Volunteer Nature Stewardship Class on 2/17/2018. Part of his talk focused on the awesome atala butterfly (Eumaeus atala) and Disney’s ongoing efforts to continue to “recover” this butterfly.

Thought to be extinct from 1937 until 1989, this butterfly was “re-disovered” by eagle-eyed naturalist Roger Hammer in Biscayne National Park. All of the existing atala butterflies in Florida are thought to be progeny of this colony. The efforts of butterfly aficionados and the commerce of coontie as an ornamental plant have helped this butterfly to thrive.

Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties are thought to be the natural range of this neotropical butterfly. Florida is the northernmost extent of its range; It also is found in Cuba, the Bahamas, and the Cayman Islands.

Coontie (Zamia floridana) is its larval host plant. Pictured above is the coontie at the entrance to the FMEL Administrative Building, where it has been thriving amid concrete and asphalt since at least 1990. This cycad is the one & only cycad native to North American. Cycads were the very first seed-bearing plants and were here when the dinosaurs were present.

Coontie is now widely used as an ornamental landscape plant. Below is a photo of a “new” plantings of coontie at Archbold Biological Station, where we visited in March of 2015 …

Coontie is included in ornamental plantings at Bok Tower

Susan Warmer (Class of 2006) has it planted in her yard …

With time, coontie can get big as in the yard of Martha Willoughby (Class of Fall 1998 – Charter Class) …

Coonties are dioecious. Males have long thin cones (shown below), and female plants bear shorter and wider cones. Specialist beetles transport the pollen from the male cones to the female cones.

The tuberous roots of coonties were harvested for the production of arrowroot flower. Over-harvesting decimated coontie populations and caused the supposed extinction of the associated atala butterfly. Back in 1888, the atala butterfly was said to be the “most conspicuous insect” in south Florida. (Guess that mosquitoes aren’t conspicuous).

Atala butterflies are small black butterflies with 3 rows of aquamarine spots on their hindwings. This striking color also rings their eyes. These markings vary slightly on each butterfly and are thought to aid in mate recognition. Atala butterflies live 3 weeks or longer in the wild and mate multiple times.

Eggs are laid on tender new coontie growth, tender enough for the tiny, tiny flesh-colored caterpillars to consume. Cycasin, a toxic substance is heavily concentrated in the new foliage, and the larvae become toxic and more conspicuous.

As they progress through 5 instars (stages) of development, the larvae (caterpillars) become brightly colored. The conspicuous colors of the later instar larvae and the adult butterfly advertise their “poison” to potential predators.

They often pupate together right on the coontie. The butterfly below just emerged from its pupal case and is drying its wings.

Atala butterflies are said to prefer white flowers and nectar upon wild coffee (Psychotria nervosa), fiddlewood (Citharexylum spinosum), white indigo berry (Randia aculeata), and common beggarticks (Bidens alba).

Atala butterflies are now present in Indian River County, likely the result of releases of butterflies reared by Dr. Gezon and/or the transport of “infested” counties from plant nurseries in south Florida. Donna Winter (Class of 2016) pointed one out at the Environmental Learning Center at the second class session. Oslo Riverfront Conservation Area does not have coontie plants, so you are unlikely to see atala butterflies there.