Saving the Atala Butterflies: A Success Story

In south Florida, wide planting of a certain native plant is saving the atala butterflies and is part of a success story we all can learn from. 

This guest post is by Susannah Nesmith, a Miami-based freelance writer (originally in Horticulture July/August 2017 issue which you can read here).

atala butterfly

Two atala butterflies emerge from their chrysalides on a coontie, the only plant on which they lay eggs.

I watched the coontie plants in my back yard for years, keeping weeds away from them, admiring their glossy, feather-like fronds forming neat, symmetrical mounds. They’re pretty in their own right, but I had planted them with a goal that went beyond aesthetics. I wanted atalas.

It took nine years, but finally last summer I spotted the beautiful black-and-blue butterflies flitting around the back yard.

Atalas have an unusual conservation story. Once thought extinct, they are now relatively common in south Florida, all because people like me planted coonties, the only plant they lay eggs on.

History of the Coontie Plant

The coontie (Zamia integrifolia), a native cycad, used to be common in Florida’s pinelands. Native Americans harvested their stems for starch, but up until the late nineteenth century, south Florida was so sparsely populated that the harvesting didn’t make much of a dent in the plant population. In the early twentieth century, white settlers industrialized the process, and then development gobbled up the pinelands.

A turnaround came when landscapers discovered how versatile and sturdy coonties are. Now they’re planted in parking-lot medians and back yards all over Florida. And the atala population is booming.

“In terms of saving an endangered species, atalas are the best example we have,” says Doug Tallamy, professor of entomology at the University of Delaware and author of Bringing Nature Home and The Living Landscape (with co-author Rick Darke).

Tallamy is a fierce advocate of using native plants in landscaping, along with limiting pesticide use, in order to support wildlife.

“Ecosystems work best when we have a lot of native species,” he says. “It’s a community of living things. We need to save the common species too, before they become endangered.”

He notes that 96 percent of the songbirds in North America feed their young insects, even if the adults eat seeds and berries. The North American Bird Conservation Initiative found that 37 percent of the native birds on the continent are at risk of extinction.

“There are a lot of reasons for that and they all have to do with us,” Tallamy says.

Tallamy has developed a list of the most important native plants in the Mid-Atlantic region for butterflies and moths. In that region, oak trees support more wildlife than any other plant, he says. He’s also working with the National Wildlife Federation on a national database that homeowners can use to find the best native plants for their particular ZIP code. An early version of it is already available: nwf.org/NativePlantFinder/. The Pollinator Partnership has also developed regional planting guides for gardeners who want to encourage not just butterflies, but bees and other pollinating insects: pollinator.org/guides.

Patience Pays Off

Jaret Daniels, a professor in the University of Florida Entomology and Nematology Department, has studied the atala and other native butterflies. He cautions that homeowners need to have patience when gardening with an eye toward attracting butterflies.

“It’s going to take time for them to find your resources,” he says. “People should not expect immediate responses to landscaping changes. It depends on the nearest population and it also depends on what resources are available in your broader community.”

Many gardeners in south Florida share atala caterpillars and Fairchild Botanical Garden gives them to anyone who wants them—a program that has helped them spread throughout the region.

Daniels notes that just a generation ago, no one would have expected the monarch butterfly to be in any danger. Today, the population that winters in Mexico has declined 80 percent from its high in the mid-1990s, according to the Xerces Society, which is working to restore monarch habitats. A separate California population has declined by 74 percent. This society also publishes planting guides that can help gardeners find flowers native to their region that will help feed species at risk: xerces.org/pollinator-conservation/plant-lists/.

saving the atala butterfly

A monarch butterfly feeds on purple coneflowers. While the adults will drink from many kinds of flowers, only milkweed supports their young.

Conservationists hope that efforts to plant milkweed, the only plant the monarch caterpillars feed on, will help the iconic butterfly rebound. With monarchs, it’s important that gardeners plant milkweeds that are native to their specific area, because non-native milkweeds can actually harm the butterflies.

In addition to encouraging home gardeners to plant milkweed and other flowers that monarchs need, the Xerces Society works to seed hedgerows and roadsides with wildflowers and has collaborated with growers raising the flower seeds.

Daniels says back-yard gardeners also should be realistic about what types of butterflies they may be able to attract.

“The reason that a lot of these species are endangered is because they’re tied to these fractured habitats,” he said. “The misconception is that people, through their home landscaping, can save these highly endangered species. That’s probably not going to happen.”

He mentions the Miami blue, one of the most endangered butterflies in the United States.

“Thirty years ago, they were pretty common,” he says. “The population just collapsed. You will probably never have a Miami blue in your yard.”

The Miami blue, which was put on the endangered species list in 2012, is no longer found on mainland Florida—it’s gone from the city it was named for.

Homeowners can, however, help conserve butterflies that are still common today, but whose populations could similarly collapse without the native plants they need.

For example, if coonties fall out of fashion, the atala will be in trouble again, Daniels says.

“We encourage people to have diverse yards and to make their yards as wildlife friendly as possible,” he says. “We don’t want to get to a point where we have to list these species as declining. They need a diverse plant community. Because habitats are dwindling, these landscapes are even more important.”

The atala isn’t the only butterfly to recover through the efforts of gardeners. Tim Wong, a biologist in San Francisco, managed to reintroduce the pipevine swallowtail to the Bay Area by growing a rare native pipevine (Aristolochia californica) in his back yard.

And Tallamy is more optimistic that more endangered species can be brought back by home gardeners.

“People say the butterflies can’t live in a city,” he says. “They can’t live in a city because we took away their host plants.”

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