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Atala Butterfly Making a Comeback

August 31, 2022

By Sue Ramos, SCCF Native Landscapes & Garden Center

Introducing the amazing, once believed to be extinct Atala butterfly (Eumaeus atala)

The survival of the Atala is tightly tied to the survival of its host plant the coontie (Zamia integrifolia). In the 1950s, it was thought extinct due to over-harvesting of coontie as a starch substitute. Now that coontie is used as an ornamental and in butterfly gardens, the Atala is making a comeback, although it is still considered very rare and threatened throughout its range. The Atala is naturally found in Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami-Dade counties in Florida, the Bahamas, and Cuba.  Recent sightings on the Gulf coast extend as far north as Pinellas County and include Sanibel.

The Atala butterfly is small with a wing span of 1.75 inches. It is dark black with florescent blue or green scales on the wings and a bright orange abdomen. The caterpillars are bright orange with yellow dots. Like the monarch, the bright colors advertise toxicity. This toxin comes from the butterfly’s favorite host plant, the coontie. 

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. The coontie contains a toxin called cycasin that’s heavily concentrated in the new soft growth of the plant. The Atala caterpillars eat these soft leaves. The coontie can tolerate much abuse from scale and sooty mold to mealy bugs. However, Atala caterpillars can defoliate a plant. 

Keep in mind, though, that the Atala has a very low chance of making it to the adult butterfly stage. By knowing it is very rare and threatened, you may help by tolerating the loss of a few plants.  

Learn more about landscaping for wildlife here.


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