Monday, July 09, 2012

July 2012-UF in Gainesville

After a serious drop in Atala colony success during the past few years, most likely due to the cold fronts that hit southeast Florida, 2012 looks like bumper crop year for the Atala….our colonies are flourishing, some are self-establishing (good and bad, depending on where they decide to land!) From old data, it is starting to look like the Atala may have a 7-8 boom cycle as well as those twice-yearly crashes and eruptions. Right now, there is definitely an eruption occurring in many locations....better to share the wealth! These neonates are about to join the captive colony here at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Sadly, though, the bigger news is that many of our other native butterflies are not doing well at all. Schaus Swallowtail surveys on the islands offshore in Biscayne National Park and Key Largo are so dangerously low that the Dr. Jaret Daniels and the University of Florida have received emergency permission from the Federal Government to capture four females for captive breeding. They haven’t been caught yet since only six adults have been seen this year. 

Thanks to Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden and Montgomery Botanical Center for continued support of the “Atala Re-Introduction II” and to our wonderful NABA volunteers in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach Counties for being instrumental in getting the butterflies back into home gardens, and to Miami-Dade County and Palm Beach County biologists and park staff for deploying Atalas back into the pinelands and natural areas, where it has lived in southeast Florida.

A special thank you is due to Broward County NABA for handling a few rescues of the aforementioned self-established but unwelcome meta-populations that descended on ornamental coonties in the heavily urbanized environment. Those Atalas are safe and sound in private gardens now where severe herbivory is not frowned upon, but is recognized instead as a sign of successfully nurturing an imperiled species.

Speaking of those home colonies, those survey reports really are more important than one may think. One of the weakest links in any re-introduction program is that we often do not know if the colony survives, simply because we don't have money and staff to re-visit the sites on a regular basis. That is what "Citizen Science" is about. Knowing if your colony is growing, stable, sick, declining, disappeared but came back, never established, remained viable for two years or more: all of these inputs help determine the strength of a re-introduction program....& we can honestly say that we are helping a species survive, if we have numbers and incoming data from many locations. So for all of you who do send in weekly reports, thank you and give yourself a pat on the back. Your input is valuable!

So what am I doing in Gainesville these days? Besides being surrounded with brilliant instructors, and being involved with the McGuireCenter for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity, I am challenged with intense but inspiring class work, and homework…. and too much work in general! I am working 6 ½  days in my lab or next door at USDA, in addition to catching up on data sheets every evening (“Welcome to Grad School” is the call echoing through the halls.) But most importantly, I am studying the Atala, the object of our delight and frustration, every day, all day….literally, which is both amazing and exhausting. Much of what I see in my lab-reared colony is the same as I have seen in wild colonies, which means that they are acting “normally” and the info I am recording is valid. 
So this is what I am studying: All the “basic biology”—everyone is numbered so I know who is doing what, and I am recording longevity, sex ratios, development rates in different temperatures and humidity ranges that mimic southeast Florida, mating behavior, and other basic biological factors. I’m looking at herbivory rates, which is certainly one of the primary questions from home owners and park staff: How much foliage do the caterpillars consume (“a lot” is a really good answer, but I’ll have an actual quantity when all this munching is finally finished!)

There are more questions arising that may or may not get answered in the process, but believe me, caring for a captive colony of several hundred Atala larvae and adults is quite a task! (The pupae don’t ask for much but a spritz of “dew” a couple times a day and a way to climb up to the roof to expand their wings when they emerge. The larvae are exceptionally demanding bundles of joy, as are all immature creatures, and the adults are happy if they have their own company, nectar to sip at will, plenty of perching places and free flying space.)

I also have to share an amazing experience that I had in May, thanks to one of our Broward NABA members who introduced me to Bud and Jackie Klein. These very special coontie growers own “Duck Lake Coontie Farm,” which is located just outside of Dade City. Some of you may have heard about this farm as a good place to buy coontie….but honestly, it is not a ‘good place’: IT IS A WONDERFUL AMAZINGLY  MAGICAL place to purchase coontie!

The plants are big, beautiful, healthy and organically and lovingly cared for by Bud and his employees, who take great pride in raising coontie to “save the world.” Seriously, if you happen to be an Atala butterfly, Bud’s claim that he’s saving the world is quite literal! The Kleins’ generously donated plants for my captive colony to munch down and the irony did not escape us: he was donating plants to feed the very insect he never wants to see on his property! 

Plan a day trip to Dade City with your friends for a truckload of coontie to share with your neighborhood herbivores! Although it is about four hours north west of Lauderdale, it is well worth the trip:, 12902 Duck Lake Canal Road, Dade City, FL 33525. Tell them that Sandy and the UF Atalas sent you!

In the meantime, I thank all of you for continuing to provide safe havens and expanded colony sites for the Atala…and all the butterflies, moths and creatures of the Earth! "There is nothing in Nature that is meaningless, trivial or without purpose." (Maimonides)

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Monday, June 06, 2011

June 2011 Atala Conservation Report

You know that Life has been very busy when this newsletter is so many months behind! I apologize for allowing that happen. Since last summer, I have been helping with Florida Natural Areas Inventory (FNAI) surveys for imperiled butterfly species almost every weekend, working full time during the week, presenting lectures, doing monthly children's has not left much time to write about those things! (Not to mention moving back and forth between Miami and Davie---that's nine moves since January! Sort of like camping out between two beautiful butterfly gardens, but I'll be staying put in Miami for the summer.)

This "Atala Conservation Report" is overdue, but I think you will find it as interesting as I do. I presented a more detailed report for the Imperiled Butterfly Working Group in April. Atala activity has been virtually non-existent, especially in Broward and Palm Beach this year, but some very thought-provoking information was uncovered in the process of preparing the presentation.

Over the past seven years, I have documented atala activity in 132 sites, primarily in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade Counties. There is a wide margin of error: I am only aware of sites that people have told me about or that I have found; and I am more aware of Broward County sites because I usually live there! There may be (and hopefully are) hundreds of other locations....So...If you have information that would change any of my information,
PLEASE let me know. I would love to be proven wrong on the site numbers!

It is significant that of these 132 sites, only 17 have been active in the past two years, and only nine sites have had any activity this year. The types of sites with atala activity vary between the three counties, too. The data also shows that 2007-2008 produced "bumper crops" of atalas. Perhaps this is another reason why many people are feeling exceptionally deprived this year. The cold fronts apparently impacted the colonies for the worst and now the drought seems to have affected many of the butterfly species (host and nectar plants are stressed).

For purposes of this report, the following descriptions characterize the five types of sites where atalas have been documented during these seven years:

  1. Any location on private property, owned by an individual, is designated as a “Private Garden.” Your yard would be considered a “Private Garden.”
  2. Any place that is openly accessible to the general public is labeled as a “Public Park,” even if it isn’t actually a city, county, state or federal park. Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden and Bill Baggs State Park are both designated as a “Public Park” because they are fully accessible to the public.
  3. Any site that is located in an area completely bordered by concrete, such as highways, streets, paved parking lots, etc., is labeled an “Urban Lot.” Most of the Urban Lots have ornamental coontie planted along the curbs or in small landscaped clusters nearby, and most also have some kind of flowering plants as well. The parking lots of a mall, as well as a median strip dividing a highway, are both considered “Urban Lots.”
  4. Another site type is designated as a “School Campus” and includes any educational facilities such as elementary schools and university campuses. These usually contain a mixture of large open green spaces, parking lots, buildings, and ornamental landscaping, and often a butterfly garden containing coontie.
  5. The last kind of site description is labeled as a “Preserve.” It designates natural areas or other ecosystems that are locked and generally inaccessible to the general public (except with permits). There are numerous ‘preserves’ that are not actually off-limits to human activity, such as Big Cypress Preserve. For purposes of this report, a site is labeled as a Preserve only if there is virtually no public access to it.

Because we live in an extremely urbanized environment, practically all of these sites could be labeled as “Urban Lots” and the differentiation between them may be very subtle and in some cases, subjective.

For example, several sites with atala activity were actually plant nurseries. I elected to identify most of those sites as “Public Parks” because they are accessible to the public and actually have quite a bit in common with parks! A few were designated as “Urban Lots,” however, because they are literally in the middle of a highly developed area.

In Palm Beach County, I have documented only 28 sites with atala activity since 2003, and all but two of the sites have been inactive this year. I hesitate to call these sites “colonies” since many of the locations do not have ‘continued occupancy,’ and the atalas abandon the site(s) after a generation or two, or experience freeze-back and do not return. Of those 28 sites, twelve are recorded as Public Parks. Six are logged as Urban Lots. Eight are located in Private Gardens and two are documented on a School Campus. There are none located in true Preserves.

In Broward County, the picture is somewhat different. Here, I have documented a total of sixty-three sites in the past seven years. Thirteen Public Parks, six Urban Lots, and thirty-five Private Gardens have had verified atala activity. There are four School Campuses and two true Preserves with atala activity. Something that should gladden the hearts of our Broward County butterfly gardeners is that more than a third of the Private Garden sites have been certified as “wildlife or butterfly friendly” by one or more environmentally-aware organizations such as NABA, Audubon, the National or Florida Wildlife Federation, NatureScape Broward, or UF/IFAS Extension’s Florida Friendly Yards. It made a difference.

Miami-Dade County has twenty-five locations recorded as Public Parks, two as campuses, but only one Urban Lot….and surprisingly, only ten private gardens have been documented. The three true Preserves were difficult to tease out because many of the Public Parks have locked areas associated with them. Basically, if the atala activity was documented in the Public park section, it is designated as such; if the activity was recorded in the locked section, it was scored as a Preserve.

Miami-Dade also boasts two massive federal parks, Everglades National Park (ENP) and Biscayne National Park (BNP). There have been atalas documented in both locations, but the atala activity in ENP was a result of our human intervention as we released thousands when we were trying to re-establish the species between the years 2004 to 2008. BNP has recorded a stray atala several times in the past few years, but reports have not been verified.

So here's the score board:

Public Parks

Urban Lots

Private Gardens

School Campuses


Palm Beach County






Broward County






Miami-Dade County






One of the most significant findings in this study, particularly in Broward and Miami-Dade Counties, is that these locations form very clear-cut corridors on the map. I have previously mentioned Sam Wright’s important 2007 study on Key Biscayne, which showed that the atala butterfly did in fact disperse from Crandon Park to Cape Florida—a distance of only two miles took three years! But the important thing is that the people in the Village of Key Biscayne planted coontie and nectar sources for the butterfly and it had a corridor to follow. Unfortunately, neither of these two locations has recorded new activity since 2008.

In both Broward and Miami-Dade, the documented sites of atala activity are literally within a few miles of each other, and often within a few blocks of each other. It does not matter if the sites are public or private, but more that they are close to each other and contain the necessary ingredients for "happy hairstreaks.' I find that promising for future colony strength.

The map, which unfortunately I can’t show you on the blog, underlined some important inferences about the atala. First, private gardens are as important to the species' survival as we thought (Smith, 2000; Koi, 2008) Secondly, corridors are being used by the butterfly to self-establish in suitable habitat (that includes every one of the categories). Quite a few of the sites were self-established in the sense that no human assisted in their arrival, and all of these self-established ‘colonies’ were within a few miles of the closest known site.

Third, it was once proffered that the atala needed a “coastal” environment to thrive (Kilmer, 1992). Indeed, some of the most stable and prolific colonies have been near the coast. However, I think that perhaps this presumed ‘preference for the coast’ may have been an artifact of the environment. Until eighty years ago, the east coast of Florida was only six to ten miles wide. The Everglades was literally that close to the Atlantic Ocean, so everywhere in south east Florida was “coastal” to some extent. Southeast Florida has been drastically altered by canals, diminished wetlands, invasive vegetation and cities built on miles artificial landfilled territory. A question to consider now is, “How many miles from the ocean are still considered coastal?”

One of the surprising self-established colonies, in a National Wildlife Federation certified garden, showed up nearly 27 miles from the shore. It was also less than 8 miles from the Everglades. I think this further establishes that this species not only needs our gardens, it will seek out our gardens, and we are important in its survival!

In other news, many of us have been helping Florida Wildlife Commission and FNAI search for Schaus Swallowtails in the Florida Keys and Biscayne National Park's offshore islands. It is sometimes extremely difficult work, but we have been rewarded with a number of sightings. To get to the islands, we have to be escorted by boat. This is Rhodes Key in the distance. Then we sometimes have to wade to shore as there are no docks...this is me and Caitlyn Fisher waiting for a ride back to the mainland after a hike through the thickets. Some of the islands have no trails, and although the drought has been extremely detrimental to the vegetation, it also meant there were fewer mosquitoes....fewer, but we still had to wear mosquito suits!

And some of the FNAI surveys have been very rewarding for the beautiful wildflowers...this is flowering Buttonbush, found at Snake Warrior's Island in south Broward County....what a gorgeous sight! The park is restored and is quite large with plenty of trails.
The next photo is a target FNAI species, a Baracoa Skipper, taken by Barbara DeWitt, on the ubiquitous Spanish Needles flowers. "Poor Man's Patch" and "Green-Eyed Grass" flowers were found in Miami-Dade, as well as the migrating Checkered White butterfly. I happened across a majesty of migrating whites that stopped to nectar and lay eggs on their host plants in an abandoned field in south South Dade. It was quite a treat of hundreds of fluttering jewels that included Great Southern Whites!

And please join us for the next NABA count! We will be doing the Coral Gables Count in Miami-Dade on June 25 (miamiblue at The south Broward counts will take place on June 26 (bcbcmail at or cycad49 at and the north count on July 23. There is a $3 fee which helps support NABA; it is great fun and you do not need to be an expert to participate. We are also seeking people to help with FNAI surveys in all three counties~~We need you!

Last but not least, I'll be leaving for Gainesville at the end of the is time to get serious about pursuing those higher academic levels. I am so looking forward to learning and working with the experts at the University of Florida, and the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera.

Happy Shavuos!

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