Atala butterflies: Catch sight of their beauty … if you can

They were once thought extinct, but the Florida Atala butterfly is making a comeback. The rare, beautiful butterfly can be found in select pockets along the coast of St. Lucie County, but if you don’t know what you’re looking for, you’ll likely miss them.

The butterfly has black satiny wings that are speckled with an iridescent turquoise shimmer. Atalas primarily live on coontie plants, a (relatively pricey) shrub used in local landscaping, but that does appear in the uncultivated nature.

All stages of the butterfly’s life cycle hinge on that one plant. And, when that plant is gone, so, too, are the butterflies.

“People have not been kind to the coontie plant,” said Ken Gioeli, UF/IFAS St. Lucie County Extension Agent. He explained that the plant was overharvested in the 1800s as a stable food crop. While the plant is toxic, people quickly learned that harvesting the root and washing it in water released the toxins, making the plant safe. The root, being a starch, was used to make flour.

Gioeli began studying the Atalas in the early 1990s and has helped locate what he calls “ephemeral” colonies – they are like a mist, here one day and gone the next. The butterflies typically are found on the thin stretch of land between Highway A1A and the beach dune along North and South Hutchinson Island.

They’ve also been found along A1A as far north as the Vero Beach barrier island, munching on a homeowners association’s coonties. Gioeli recalled that the neighborhood’s landscapers began to spray the shrubs in an effort to remove whatever it was that was eating the leaves down to the stems. But, when the residents learned that the coontie was home to the rare butterflies, they quickly put a stop to it. Gioeli did not identify the community.

“The butterflies have hung on for dear life” in that narrow zone along A1A, Gioeli said.

He surmises that the butterflies live in that one bit of habitat due to the unique climate zone. But it could also be that they need the salt spray from the ocean – or it could be an area protected from pesticides.

Currently, those in the know can find them at a state park along A1A in Fort Pierce. A colony has been found near a guard shack, another near a picnic pavilion.

Gioeli estimates that there are hundreds of caterpillars and chrysalides in the park, and in just a matter of a couple weeks, the butterflies will emerge.

Gioeli spoke about the butterflies at the recent Manatee Center Lunch and Learn, urging those in the standing-room-only audience not to touch or otherwise disturb the caterpillars, chrysalides or butterflies should they happen to find some.

The butterflies are social creatures and tend to congregate on the same branch of the shrub to lay eggs and form their own chrysalis. When you find one, many more are nearby.

The caterpillars are red with yellow dots – two key warning colors that they are toxic. Gioeli explained that the entire life cycle is toxic as the creature eats a toxic plant throughout its entire life.

The caterpillars “almost looks, to me, like a gummy candy,” Gioeli said, as though a cartoonist drew it into life.

Gioeli tries to leave the audience with encouraging words for conservation or a to-do list for helping the critter he’s speaking about. The Atalas, though, are a different matter.

“I would love to see everyone plant more coontie,” he said, but unless the plants are within the small strip between A1A and the coast, there is little chance the butterflies will migrate elsewhere.

One thing residents can do, however, is educate their landscaping crews to not immediately apply pesticides. Instead, determine what insect is causing the supposed damage before treating.

“The more I learn about these, the more I’m fascinated by these insects,” Gioeli said.

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