National Wildlife Refuge System

Rare Butterfly Spotted at Florida Refuge

A rare Eumaeus atala butterfly has been spotted in the newly-renovated Butterfly Garden at Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. In the United States, the small atala butterfly is found only in tropical southeastern Florida.

Refuge staff and volunteers worked tirelessly to plant native herbs, shrubs and trees in the garden. While planting coontie - a native cycad plant that is the host for atala butterflies – staff and volunteers saw atala eggs attached to the leaves. It was an exciting surprise when an adult atala was actually spotted on November 21, 2008.

The decline of the butterfly's native host plant (coontie), due to development and over-harvesting for starch, left the butterfly nearly extinct by the mid-20th century. Because coontie has now become a popular ornamental landscaping plant, there has been a recent growth in the atala population.

The larvae of the atala feed on coontie leaves that contain toxins. The toxins remain in the adult butterfly, protecting it from bird predation. The reddish-orange larvae and the green or blue spots on the iridescent black wings serve as "warning" colors to predators.

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Last updated: August 19, 2009