Atala Hairstreak: A Butterfly Success Story

We’ve been having an exciting couple of weeks at the butterfly exhibit where I work. About a month ago, we

We’ve been having an exciting couple of weeks at the butterfly exhibit where I work. About a month ago, we were given the opportunity to display Atala Hairstreak butterflies in our Flight Encounter exhibit, and we jumped at the chance. In general, we raise every butterfly we display right on site (making us very unique among butterfly houses), which means all our species are native to Central Florida and many of our visitors can plant their own butterfly gardens and expect to see these same species visiting their yards too. But our Atalas are a little bit different, and not just for their gorgeous colors. They have a story that makes them both interesting and important.

Atala Hairstreak Jill Staake
Atalas (Eumaeus atala) are members of the hairstreak family, and in fact are sometimes called Atala Hairstreaks or Coontie Hairstreaks. They have a wingspan of about 1.5 inches and are extremely easy to identify with their bright orange abdomens and black wings speckled with iridescent blue. Gorgeous as they are with their wings closed, Atalas are even more incredible when their wings open and they display a stunning blue-green overlay.

This butterfly has several populations around the Caribbean, but its only U.S. population is found in Florida. And in 1960, the Florida subspecies, Eumaeus atala florida, was so rare that scientists feared it was extinct in Florida (a condition known as extirpation). Fortunately, this brilliant little butterfly hadn’t quite died out, and there are now several thriving populations in and around the Miami area. This is thanks to a resurgence in popularity of their host plant, coontie, and people who cared enough to help this butterfly survive.

Atala Hairstreak Jill Staake

So what happened to cause this near-extinction in the first place? Atala butterflies use coontie as a host plant. Coontie (Zamia floridana) is one of the oldest species of plants still found growing today and was resident on Earth in the time of the dinosaurs. (Learn much more about coontie here.) As with many cycads, coontie is extremely slow-growing, putting on only a few inches in height and width each year. This wasn’t particularly a problem throughout much of history, until fairly recently. Long ago, Native Americans discovered that coontie roots were edible as long as they were boiled multiple times to remove the toxins, and they ground the root to obtain a starchy flour. They consumed the plant in small numbers, never uprooting more than a few from each patch, so that coontie continued to thrive. It wasn’t until European settlers discovered coontie that problems arose.

Around the mid-1800s, Florida settlement began in earnest with cattle farmers and other settlers. They learned the secrets of coontie from the Native Americans and added it to their diet. Soon, manufacturers discovered this cheap source of starch and began to harvest the plants all over Florida, selling their new product as “arrowroot flour”. In the course of just a few decades, they removed what had taken hundreds of years to grow, and coontie simply couldn’t grow fast enough to keep up. By the mid-1900s, coontie was almost gone from Florida, and along with it went the Atala butterfly, who depended on the foliage for its survival.

Atala and Coontie by Kristen Gilpin

In recent years, though, homeowners and landscapers have “rediscovered” coontie. This drought-tolerant native grows in nearly any conditions, and has found its way back into gardens all over the state. It’s frequently used in roadside and median landscaping, as well as any other location where people want year-round green foliage that needs pretty much no care. It’s available at almost any native plant nursery, and seedlings from your own coonties can easily be transplanted. (If you live in Florida, click here to learn more about how you can help Atalas by planting coontie.)

At the science museum where I work, the past month has shown just how likely these butterflies are to increase in numbers if they can just find their host plant in a wider range. Within just a few days of being released in our exhibit, our Atalas were mating and laying eggs on our coontie. And in just a few more days, those eggs had hatched, giving us a batch of small red and yellow caterpillars to raise in our controlled lab environment. The caterpillars thrived, and are now in chrysalis, soon to become butterflies themselves.

Atalas Jill StaakeBirds & BloomsWhile we don’t recommend that other folks try to raise these endangered butterflies in their own homes, we do heartily urge those in Central and South Florida to plant as much as coontie as they can. Someday, when coontie once again is available across wide areas of the state, these gorgeous little butterflies might have the chance to call a much wider area home. And who doesn’t need more butterflies in their life?

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Jill Staake
Jill lives in Tampa, Florida, and writes about gardening, butterflies, outdoor projects and birding. When she's not gardening, you'll find her reading, traveling and happily digging her toes into the sand on the beach.