The Atala butterfly, once thought extinct in Florida, has found a new home in the gardens of FIU’s Biscayne Bay Campus.
In recent months, students have noticed an increasing number of the butterflies with dark wings and distinct coloration – male Atala have metallic green markings while the females have metallic blue – fluttering about campus. But their presence is no accident.
The gardens on BBC are full of flora and fauna native to South Florida in an effort to help preserve and nurture some of the region’s most unique species, according to Jennifer Grimm, environmental programs manager for the School of Environment, Arts and Society (SEAS). The gardens are planted and maintained by students in BBC’s First Year Experience classes and others fulfilling service learning requirements.
Included in the BBC gardens is the coontie plant (Zamia floridana), which serves as a host to the Atala butterfly. For the past 200 years, coontie has been harvested across Florida for its edible starchy roots, but urbanization and pesticide use have caused a significant decline of the plant. As a result, the Atala butterfly has experienced its own population decline.
Reliant on the plant for reproduction, the Atala lay their flat-white eggs in clusters on the plant’s leaves. The young leaves of the coontie also serve as a source of nutrition for caterpillars where they can store toxins and get their bright coloration to ward off future predators. In the late 1960’s, the butterfly was thought to be extinct in Florida. However, in 1979 a small colony was discovered in Virginia Key. Since then, the coontie has regained popularity as a landscape plant, providing renewed habitats for the Atala butterfly.
The presence of coontie on BBC has allowed the Atala to lay eggs, mature into caterpillars, and complete their final metamorphosis into butterflies. Projects are being implemented to propagate the coontie seeds to further expand both the coontie and Atala populations. Grimm said the gardens at FIU, will always be a home for native plants that attract butterflies such as the Monarch, Swallowtail, Atala and more. The long-term goal of these gardens is to provide native habitats for endangered species with the eventual aim of removing these species from the endangered list entirely.