Monday, August 29, 2005

Katrina's Kick

Hope that all of you are safe and sound (and with electric!) now that Hurricane Katrina has left us. The butterflies suffered some major losses; park employees and private atala fosterers are still assessing the damages. If you are able to volunteer some time at any of your local parks, whether city, county, state or national, DO SO! The clean up efforts are massive; for such a “small” Category One hurricane, Katrina sure left behind a mess. The first butterfly I usually see after a storm is nice big Sulfur, but this time it was three Ruddy Daggerwings that were the first to venture out. Then a Zebra, and THEN a Sulfur.

I haven’t yet gotten to all of the areas where we have introduced, semi-wild or managed atala populations. Everglades National Park got beat up and had some flooding, but haven't heard more than that yet. Arch Creek in Miami-Dade County took quite a beating, but there are still some atala adults managing to hang on and the coontie is OK. Chris Hernandez, a naturalist at Crandon Park, on Key Biscayne, tells me that the landscaped areas fared worse than the wild areas (isn’t that almost always true?) but that the butterflies survived surprisingly well.

However, the downtown Fort Lauderdale population got slam-dunked…. On Saturday, the 27th, there were many trees and branches down, bushes twisted and wrenched away from the soil, and of course, everything underneath got mangled badly as well. I saw three newly emerged adults hanging on tightly in the still-strong winds, twelve caterpillars hunkered in the smashed coontie among the rubble of downed trees and bushes, and fortunately there were a large number of intact pupae…but there were also scores of dead larvae and pupae lying in the leaf litter and debris. Most of the pupae were newly formed, just one or two days before the hurricane struck, and still had their yellow spots. Hopefully, Florida Native Plant Society, and the Broward Chapter, will be able to help replant and then I'll re-introduce the butterfly if needed.

East Hollywood also got punched out! The beaches are still closed with trees down everywhere. John Williams Park in West Hollywood faired a little better than the parks near the beaches, but I saw no adult atalas there. However, there were eggs and larvae indicating that adults are in the natural area somewhere. There were fewer downed branches, and no downed trees, but the coontie got flattened and again, I found numerous dead, drowned larvae underneath the fronds. Compassion wins over science for me almost always, and I moved the living ones, such as the little caterpillar shown here scrambling across the debris in Riverwalk, to safer quarters.

Most of the fosterers have called to say that they have survivors, so we are very happy for that. And we hope that you and yours are all safe. Please help in whatever way you are here, help there in New Orleans...just put in a few hours or dollars somewhere to help out. When people say "Someone ought to do something..." I always answer in the words of Hillel: "If not you, who? If not now, when?"
Stay safe,

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Coontie Crazy

I've decided to publish photographs of life stages for everyone to see what some of you may never have a chance to see in the wild (what's left of it in South Florida!) I'll start with the host plant for the atala, commonly called "coontie." Coontie is a very slow growing cycad and the only cycad native to Florida (Zamia floridana or Z. pumila are the Latin names.) It used to grow throughout the pine rocklands and oak hammocks, but was harvested for flour by the Native Americans, then the early settlers, and then the Industrialists of the early 1900's. By the 1930's, the wild population of coontie was all but eradicated and the butterfly was thought to be extinct! Coontie can still found in isolated pockets in the pinelands, mostly in Miami-Dade County. It can be found at some nurseries that specialize in native plants, however, for butterfly gardens.

Coontie root is extremely poisonous, containing cycasins, azoxyglucosides and macrozamins (nasty chemicals!) Captain Cook reported several sailors dying from trying to eat improperly processed coontie, so please don't try to make your own flour. Besides, the plant is protected by the federal government, very rare in the wild, and awfully expensive to purchase, as well.

The plant is dioecious, meaning that there are male and female plants. That's a female plant in the upper left hand corner and a male plant in the lower left hand corner. Notice the pollen on the male plant's cone.
People often ask why their coontie seeds don't sprout; often it is because they do not have both a male and female plant. In the wild, there is actually a two-male-to-one-female ratio. This helps assure the plants are pollinated. The female plant develops a short stocky cone, that forms fleshy red seeds. The male plant develops a taller, thinner cone which becomes covered with pollen.

Now another possible reason that the plant doesn't get pollinated is because there is a special and complicated relationship with a weevil known to scientists as Pharaxonotha zamiae. These weevils eat the pollen in the male cones, and occasionally fly out to search of another pollen-bearing cone. They sometimes end up in a female cone instead, thereby pollinating it. If this doesn't sound like a very efficient way of propagating a species, you are so correct! So not only is the cycad slow growing, it's pollination rate isn't as high as most other plants.

And then there is the fact that the seeds contain a germination inhibitor, that must be broken down slowly over the course of the entire year, so that they germinate the spring after they fall from the cone! The good news is that the plant has a sturdy tap root that usually survives the fires that used to sweep through the pine rocklands. They also tolerate the extreme and wet season/dry season cycles, as well as being eaten to the rootstock by atala larvae (caterpillars.)

If you aren't getting fertile seeds from your female coontie, plant two males beside her and hope that the weevils will find them. The more coontie you plant, the more viable your atala population will be. I believe that you must have at least eight to twelve full plants to start a population of atala butterflies, but you will still have to hand-manage the numbers of larvae. A better number of plants would be at least fifty!

Next blog: Atala's Lifestyle.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Releasing butterflies

Just wanted to show everyone that releasing hundreds of butterflies isn't an easy job. This is a photo of Everglades National Park fire crew, Hillary Cooley and intern Elizabeth Cukor, dressed in field clothes, boots and mosquito zoot-suits on July 23, 2005. They helped me, also elegantly dressed in a matching ensemble, release several hundred atalas. The bins contained pupae and larvae; adults had been released earlier. We traipsed over miles of pine rockland, in the back country of ENP, and mapped exact locations of coontie plants and atala releases using Global Positioning System (GPS.)

The heat index was 106 degrees. You gotta love the little critters to put up with that, eh?

And this photo is me, clad in similar chic attire, on Andros Island, Bahamas, where I went to study an untouched wild population of atalas. My perfume, Eau de Deet, allowed me to forgo with the delicate veils that Elizabeth and Hillary are sporting above. That's Stafford Creek in the background, not the ocean. Too bad you can't see my braids. Made hair care a breeze for the week, but took me four hours to unravel when I got back to South Florida! I'll be posting pictures of the island atalas in future pages.

Next ENP release is "scheduled" for sometime next weekend. The atalas run the show, however, so it may or may not be on my preferred time.

If you haven't yet seen an atala, be sure to attend the next Broward County North American Butterfly Association (NABA) meeting, to be held this Thursday, August 11, 2005 at 7 pm in the auditorium of the Broward County Library , 3151 Stirling Road, Hollywood, just west of I-95. I'll be presenting a PowerPoint program, "Butterflies, Botany and Battlefields," about the atala, the coontie and how the incredible history of Fort Lauderdale impacted the butterfly's fragile survival (lots of cool pix.) We'll also be briefly discussing the family traits of Lycaenids this month. Hope to see everyone there!


Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Welcome to Atala News!

Welcome to this first edition of online Atala News! As some of you know, I have been working with Eumaeus atala for a few years. This newsletter is dedicated to my ongoing research, and this is where I will be sharing the efforts made toward the conservation and protection of this beautiful creature.

My research primarily involves documenting the historical and current ranges and distribution of the butterfly and it's larval host plant, the cycads in the Zamia genus, called "coontie." It also entails re-introducing the coontie and the butterfly, as well as lecturing and writing about the butterfly, plant and some of South Florida's history.

There are some first thank you's in order: Much appreciation to Thomas a co-worker here at the University of Florida Entomology/Nematology Department for his help setting up this Atala News blog.

I'd also like to thank William Ripley Mohler III for his ongoing help in everything from counting populations to planting coontie. And much thanks to Julie and John Degnan for donating two more beautiful, healthy coontie plants to the program, that were immediately planted in the safety of Sheridan Oaks Forest Natural Area, within John Williams Park.
The atala butterfly has been introduced there as well, and is thriving. The City of Hollywood maintains the park, and Broward County Native Plant Society (BNPS) helps me care for the Sanctuary's inhabitants. BNPS helped us plant coonties there last spring (Go there to see cool pictures!) The Sanctuary is not open to the public yet, but will be sometime next year. In the meantime, you may catch a glimpse of the atala from the outskirts of John Williams Park.

Will keep you posted!
Sandy Koi