A Talk on the Wild Side.
By Ken Warren, External Affairs, Southeast Region=
Not only are Miami blue butterflies—recently emerged from their chrysalises—flitting around Long Key State Park in the Florida Keys, they’re also mating.
Just this week staff and volunteers from the Florida Museum of Natural History documented approximately 21 adult Miami blues, including four mating pairs and one female laying eggs. They also found eggs on host plants at Long Key. (At left, Miami blues mating at Long Key. Photo by Sarah Cabrera/Florida Museum of Natural History.)
Adult Schaus' swallowtail butterfly. Photo by Jaret Daniels/Florida Museum of Natural History
It all got started last week when several volunteers, biologists and researchers from the Florida Museum of Natural History/University of Florida, Florida Department of Environmental Protection and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service started the work of reintroducing two federally endangered butterflies—Schaus’ swallowtails and Miami blues—to three state parks in the Florida Keys.
Among the crew-members were museum staffers Jaret Daniels and Kristin Rossetti.
Rossetti couldn’t believe her eyes after watching a voracious eater: “I just put him on the leaf and he’s already eating! These little critters are hungry!”
“Yeah, they’re essentially eating machines,” chimed in Daniels.
Those “little critters” and “eating machines” were Schaus’ swallowtail caterpillars placed on wild lime trees at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo. (At right, Schaus’ swallowtail caterpillar. Photo by Ken Warren/USWS.)
On July 23, approximately 300 Schaus’ swallowtail caterpillars were released at John Pennekamp Park and Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park.
Matt Standridge and Kristin Rossetti prepare Miami blue pupae in protective containers for reintroduction. Photo by Geena Hill
The next day, about 150 Miami blue butterfly chrysalises were placed on Long Key State Park. These tiny chrysalises—about the size of a small aspirin—were distributed in specially designed “predator proof” plastic chambers that should enhance survivability and allow the butterflies to emerge into the habitat naturally. The early results suggest the chambers are working.
“These releases are allowing us to experimentally determine which life stages (caterpillar or chrysalis) and protocols are most successful for augmenting or reintroducing populations of endangered butterflies in South Florida,” said Daniels, associate professor of entomology at the University of Florida and director of the museum’s McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity.
Jaret Daniels, Paul Rice and Mark Salvato place Schaus' swallowtail caterpillars into a wild lime tree. Photo by Ken Warren/USWS
Both species are currently restricted solely to extreme South Florida and represent some of the most critically imperiled insects in North America. This collaborative recovery effort is intended to help reverse decades of population declines by bolstering wild numbers and expanding areas currently occupied by these unique creatures.
A few years ago, scientists and butterfly enthusiasts were preparing obituaries for these butterflies. While they’re still considered critically endangered species, things are looking up for these rare insects.
There were only four Schaus’ swallowtail butterflies observed in the wild in 2012. Collaborative conservation (including habitat restoration, captive rearing and earlier reintroductions) and some natural rebounding has put them in a much better situation.
“This past year we observed several hundred Schaus’ across Key Largo and on Biscayne National Park. We’re hopeful that the reintroductions we’re doing will continue to boost those numbers,” said Daniels.
Adult Miami blue butterfly. Photo by Jaret Daniels/Florida Museum of Natural History
In 2011 things were so bad for Miami blue butterflies that the Service issued an emergency listing to protect them. The emerge ncy listing was followed up in 2012 when the Service formally announced the listing of the Miami blues as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act.
Service biologist Mark Salvato said extremely low population numbers put these butterflies back on the radar and pushed partners to work harder to bring them back from the brink. “This has really been the most concerted effort I’ve seen since we did the emergency action,” he said.
Paul Rice, manager of John Pennekamp Park, said, “Our parks are some of the larger parcels of land, with lots of green space, plenty of host plants ... ideal for these releases. We want to do our part to help save these butterflies.”
The Schaus’ caterpillars have started pupating. Some will emerge from their chrysalises later this summer and others could emerge next spring. As previously noted, the Miami blue butterflies are emerging and already mating. The release sites are in for intensive post-release monitoring. “We’ll have good data, showing the success, hopefully, of this effort,” said Daniels.
Daniels added that this latest round of reintroductions will continue over the next several months. He believes that although these butterflies are currently on a positive trajectory, they’re a long way from declaring success. “We want to make sure that over the next several years we have persistent, viable and increasing populations. At this point we can say we’re making significant progress.”