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Rare tropical butterflies make a home at USF Sarasota-Manatee campus

By Marc R. Masferrer, University Communications and Marketing

The University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee campus offers the perfect habitat for professors and students seeking to teach, research and learn. It turns out a rare tropical butterfly, whose survival as a species depends on a plant in ample supply in the campus’s landscaping, likes it here, too, illustrating an interspecies comeback story for all to enjoy.

Walk out into the courtyard behind the Crosley Campus Center, between the back entrance to the rotunda and the café, and you’ll see dozens of Atala butterflies — scientific name, Eumaeus atala — fluttering above and among the plantings, especially the coontie (Zamia integrifolia), which look like a palm or fern but are an ancient type of plant called a cycad and may be the only thing Atala caterpillars eat. The colorful butterflies — they’re small but have bright red-orange abdomens and deep black wings punctuated by rows of ultramarine spots — have also been spotted among the coontie and other landscaping on the south side of the Selby Auditorium.

butterfly

An Atala butterfly rests on a coontie plant in the landscaping at the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus. 

"They're pretty striking, the blue iridescent on the wings and the red body," said Paul Kirchman, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences on the Sarasota-Manatee campus.

Kirchman, who had read about efforts to restore the population of Atalas elsewhere in the area, may be responsible for what could be the first-ever appearance of the Atala on the Sarasota-Manatee campus.

Kirchman, who also teaches biology, asked campus Vice Chancellor Brett Kemker earlier this year if he could plant some verbena and sweet almond near the Selby to see if the flowering plants might attract Atala butterflies looking for nectar.

“These plants are so fragrant. It’s possible the fragrance trail attracted these butterflies,” said Kemker, who earlier in his career worked as a field biologist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.

kirchman

Paul Kirchman, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences on the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus.

The Sarasota-Manatee area is not part of the Atala’s historical range, which covers southeast Florida, the Bahamas and parts of the Caribbean, but Kirchman said the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences has established a colony at Twin Lakes Park in south Sarasota. Kemker also has spotted the butterflies near the courthouse in downtown Bradenton.

Kirchman is less certain the plants he added to the landscaping were solely responsible for the Atala butterflies being on campus but something did bring them here, where they found the coontie, the only known host plants for Atala caterpillars and chrysalises.

“They just showed up. I don’t know if hoping for them is what made them want to come here,” Kirchman said. “They're clearly eating something, and it's not particularly the thing I planted, even if that was the thing that attracted them. They're feeding on something else.”

If you look closely on the leaves of the coontie, you might spot a multi-colored caterpillar or the next step in the insect’s life cycle, a bright orange-red chrysalis.

Coontie are “one of the few plants the caterpillars can eat,” Kirchman said. “There's a toxin in it, too, so really almost nothing else can eat it. And then the toxins keep the birds from eating the caterpillars.”

atala butterfly

At Atala chrysalis, left, and caterpillar in the coontie on the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus.

From the late 1930s until 1959, the butterflies were considered extinct in Florida, largely because of overharvesting of coontie for its starchy root, which was turned into a flour and used as an ingredient in baby food, animal crackers, beer, spaghetti and other food items.

“The coontie was harvested so heavily that it became endangered and led to the decimation of the butterfly population to the point where it was almost gone,” Kirchman said.

In the present day, coontie has made a comeback as a landscaping plant, popular in coastal Florida because it is resistant to drought, salt and the cold. It can grow in both sunlight and in the shade, making it a good choice for the Sarasota-Manatee campus — and creating an opportunity for the Atala.

That the butterflies have made at least a seasonal home on the Sarasota-Manatee campus “is an indication of the health of the niche that this particular animal occupies, and it was accidentally encouraged by the landscaping of these plants,” Kemker said. “With the incredible population explosion in Florida and all the habitat destruction that is going on, we see an opportunity here on our campus where we can actually provide this butterfly a space they can thrive.” 

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