Atala butterfly thrives on coontie plant – Courtesy: Shutterstock – Image by a. v. ley
The resurgence of a plant native to the Sunshine State, the coontie, has simultaneously revived the wonders of the native Atala butterfly, which relies on plants like the coontie and similar plant species to feed its larvae.
For decades, both species were considered extirpated in the state of Florida. Scientists believed the insect was extinct as no Atala butterflies were collected in the state from 1937 to 1959.
According to the Florida Wildflower Foundation, a small population found on an island off the coast of Miami back in 1979 was the progenitor of the species’ current population.
The coontie plant was over-harvested for starch in Florida, a trend that has since changed. As coonties have been turned into ornamental garden plants, there is a new bumper crop capable of feeding a new wave of Atala butterfly generations.
“The coontie is a hardy plant and grows easily without much attention,” Sue Ramos, an SCCF Native Landscapes & Garden Center staff member said in a statement.
“It can grow well in full sun or full shade and in poor soils, which makes it ideal for use in our sandy soils,” Ramos added.
Atala butterflies exclusively feed on coonties and several other cycads as larvae. Cycasin, a chemical in the coontie’s leaves, is a poison used as a defense by the butterfly. Bright spots located on the butterfly’s wings indicate its toxicity to potential predators.
The underside of an Atala butterfly’s wings has three rows of green or blue spots and one large red spot on its hind wing.
“The coontie is a hardy plant and grows easily without much attention. It can grow well in full sun or full shade and in poor soils, which makes it ideal for use in our sandy soils,” said the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation in a Facebook post with the goal of encouraging people to plant native plants.
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Melissa’s career in writing started more than 20 years ago. Today, she lives in South Florida with her husband and two boys.