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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