A Tale of Three Butterflies: Endangered Species and the Everglades

Can you imagine a place where alligators and crocodiles live side-by-side? It isn’t a fairytale: it is America’s Everglades!

Endangered Florida leafwing, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Flickr. Photo Credit: Holly Salvato

Endangered Florida leafwing, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Flickr. Photo by Holly Salvato

The historic Everglades ecosystem once encompassed 11,000 square miles. Home to a mind-boggling diversity of plants and animals, the River of Grass has filled many storybooks. More than ninety types of butterflies have been found in Everglades National Park.

But the River of Grass was significantly altered over the last century. As a result, its inhabitants face significant and growing threats too.

Two butterfly species received added federal protections this week: they were listed as endangered species. The Florida leafwing and Bartram’s scrub-hairstreak live in the Pine Rocklands of South Florida.

Some of the last remaining Pine Rocklands are found in Everglades National Park and the Big Cypress National Preserve. Not surprisingly, those are the best (and maybe only) places to catch a glimpse of a leafwing or scrub-hairstreak.

Bartram's scrub-hairstreak, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast  Region Flickr. Photo Credit: Holly Salvato.

Bartram’s scrub-hairstreak, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region Flickr. Photo by Holly Salvato.

But there is hope to be found in the story of yet another Pine Rockland dweller. Experts once believed that the atala butterfly had vanished from Florida. The atala’s host plant—the coontie—had been overharvested by Florida pioneer settlers who used the root to make flour.  By the mid-1900’s the coontie and atala populations had dropped significantly.

The coontie plant has a long history in Everglades lore. Long before the settlers, Native Americans used the plant. Marjory Stoneman Douglas wrote about coontie in her 1947 book “The Everglades: River of Grass.” The same year, Everglades National Park was established for its biologic diversity.

As it turns out, there were a few atala butterflies left in the greater Everglades ecosystem—primarily in the Florida Keys. Soon the coontie became a favorite of gardeners and naturalists alike. Increased protection for the coontie and the remaining Pine Rocklands created the perfect opportunity for the atala to make a comeback.

Atala, Flickr user Brandon Trentler.

Atala. Flickr photo by Brandon Trentler.

Though this chapter is a happy one, it isn’t the end of the story for the atala. Threats from development, pesticide use, invasive exotic species, water pollution, and habitat modification continue. The endangered Florida leafwing and the Bartram’s scrub-hairstreak are the latest reminder that more work must be done to restore and protect the environment. After all:

There are no other Everglades in the world.” –Marjory Stoneman Douglas

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