Puerto Rican harlequin butterfly
Also known as Puerto Rican checkerspot and La Quebradillana.
- Taxon: Butterfly, Lepidoptera
- Range: Northern and west-central Puerto Rico
- Status: Proposed for listing as a threatened species; proposed critical habitat; proposed 4(d) rule
One of four species of Atlantea butterflies that inhabit the Greater Antilles, only the Puerto Rican harlequin butterfly (Atlantea tulita) occurs in Puerto Rico. With a small population size, no more than 50 butterflies have ever been recorded in a single survey. The butterfly was added to the list of candidate species on May 31, 2011 when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) published a 12-month finding indicating that listing was warranted but precluded by higher priority actions. A Species Status Assessment (SSA) is currently being developed that will inform a new 12-month finding to determine whether the candidate species warrants listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Puerto Rican harlequin butterfly
The Puerto Rican harlequin butterfly is a medium-sized butterfly with a wingspan of 2-2.5 inches. As a member of the checkerspot butterfly group, it is characterized by its orange, brownish-black and beige coloration patterns with rows of deep orange dots on the wings. Males and females are similar in color patterns and size. The life cycle of the butterfly includes four distinct anatomical stages: egg, larva (caterpillar with several size phases called instars), chrysalis (pupa from which the adult butterfly emerges), and imago (adult).
Caterpillars of the species are dark orange with thin brownish-black sub-lateral lines over thin lines of intermittent white dots. Each body segment has spines with hairs. The larva are less than 0.19 inches in the beginning stages and grow to be about 2 inches by the time they reach the final stage before metamorphosis.
The chrysalis is black with orange and white dashes and yellow pimples and is around 1.2 inches long.
Eggs of the Puerto Rican harlequin butterfly are oily greenish spheres with yellowish crowns and are laid almost exclusively on prickly bush (Oplonia spinosa).
Inhabiting the northern karst and west-central volcanic-serpentine regions of Puerto Rico, the Puerto Rican harlequin butterfly is found in four different life zones or ecological settings: subtropical moist forest on limestone-derived soil; subtropical wet forest on limestone-derived soil; subtropical wet forest on serpentine-derived soil; and subtropical moist forest on serpentine-derived soil. Within these four life zones, the butterfly inhabits four forest types: mature secondary moist limestone evergreen and semi-deciduous forest; young secondary moist limestone evergreen and semi-deciduous forest; mature secondary moist and dry serpentine semi-deciduous forest; and young secondary moist serpentine semi-deciduous forest.
The host plant for the Puerto Rican harlequin butterfly is prickly bush – the essential food source for larva. Widely distributed, prickly bush occurs on hillsides and in woods and thickets, at lower and middle elevations in Puerto Rico, Culebra, Vieques, the Bahamas, and in the West Indies. Recently, however, larva have been documented feeding on Odontonema cuspidatum (commonly known in Puerto Rico as “coral de jardín”) and Justicia mirabiloides (commonly known as West Indian water-willow; or in Spanish as papayo montuno). These recent observations were of late stage larva only so it is not known if early stage larva also feed on these plants.
Adult Puerto Rican harlequin butterflies feed on the flowers of several native tree species. While water and nectar sources for adults may vary, all sites where the butterfly occurs have water sources within a 1 km radius.
The Puerto Rican harlequin butterfly was first collected and described from the karst hills in the municipality of Quebradillas in northern Puerto Rico. Later, the species was reported in the municipality of Arecibo (northern Puerto Rico) and in Tallaboa, a location between the municipalities of Guayanilla and Peñuelas in the southern karst region. The northern and southern karst regions are separated from each other by the central mountain range (Cordillera Central) that extends across the interior of Puerto Rico from east to west. Early observations of the species indicated that it occurred at low elevations in coastal areas. In 2003, it was found at higher elevations in the municipalities of Maricao and Sabana Grande, both located within the west-central volcanic region. These reports expanded the known range of the species from the coastal and karst area to the volcanic region, and from low lying coastal areas to elevations around 2,845 feet above sea level. However, many records of the butterfly’s historical locations are from anecdotal reports and may not be accurate.
Since being added to the candidate species list, search efforts for the Puerto Rican harlequin butterfly have been concentrated in its historical collection sites and other areas that harbor suitable habitat in Puerto Rico. Presently, it is only known to occur in six locations: four locations in the northern karst region and two locations in the west-central volcanic-serpentine region. In the northern karst region, it is known to occur along a coastal cliff in the municipalities of Isabella, Quebradillas, and Camuy; in the area of Guajataca forest in the municipality of Isabela; in the area of Río Encantado in the municipality of Florida, Ciales and Arecibo; and at the Río Abajo Commonwealth Forest between the municipalities of Arecibo and Utuado. In the west-central volcanic-serpentine region, the butterfly occurs in the Maricao and Susúa Commonwealth Forests; among the municipalities of Marico, San German, Sabana Grande and Yauco. It has not been found in the southern karst region since 1926. Anecdotal reports of adult Puerto Rican harlequin butterflies in other regions of Puerto Rico have yet to be confirmed.
Presently, the Puerto Rican harlequin butterfly is threatened by a combination of factors: habitat loss, modification and fragmentation caused by urban and rural developments; loss of host plants caused by clearing vegetation as maintenance activity; harm from pesticides and human induced fires; restricted range and small population size; and impacts of catastrophic natural events like hurricanes.
Partnerships, research and projects
The Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (PRDNER) has designated the Puerto Rican harlequin butterfly as Critically Endangered. It is illegal to harm, possess, transport, destroy, import or export individuals, eggs, or juveniles without previous authorization from the Secretary of the PRDNER, or to modify its habitat.
Since 2011, the Service has been working with Puerto Rico (through the PRDNER) and other partners such as Fort Worth Zoo, North Carolina Zoo, Para La Naturaleza, Liga Ecologica Quebradillana to locate populations of the Puerto Rican harlequin butterfly, describe its habitat, and identify threats. Since 2018, the Service has led a collaborative effort with these and other partners in the Puerto Rican Harlequin Butterfly Working Group, a forum where partners share new information on the species and work together to establish plans to conserve the species. In addition, the Service provides technical assistance on projects that may benefit the Puerto Rican harlequin butterfly, increasing awareness of this rare species.
How you can help
- Promote conservation of existing Puerto Rican harlequin butterfly populations by protecting habitat integrity and connectivity among sites where it occurs;
- Avoid affecting (e.g. trimming, cutting, or applying herbicides) the butterfly’s host plant, prickly bush, in areas where the butterfly is known to occur;
- Encourage research to enhance what is currently known about the butterfly’s biology, habitat requirements, and distribution;
- Promote public awareness through education and outreach about the benefits of Puerto Rican harlequin butterfly conservation;
- Limit use of pesticides that may drift into known Puerto Rican harlequin butterfly habitat; and
- Promote reforestation with native trees in areas near known populations of the Puerto Rican harlequin butterfly.
Subject matter experts
- Carlos Pacheco, Endangered Species Biologist, firstname.lastname@example.org, (787) 851-7297 x 221
Federal Register notices
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