The Cycad and the Hairstreak; a Rare Sighting
Recently Sherril Nabb photographed a beautiful female Atala butterfly (Eumaeus atala Poey) on a native coontie (Zamia), its only native larval host plant. They are quite rare and I wonder if you’ve seen any. This iridescent butterfly, also known as the coontie hairstreak once amazingly abundant from Palm Beach southward in Florida and through the Caribbean. However, early settlers, harvested the starchy coontie roots for flour, even exporting it to Europe and the population drastically declined and was thought to be extinct from 1937 to 1959. Recently, the Atala has made an impressive comeback as more landscapes incorporate coonties as well as species of exotic cycads introduced into Florida. These latter plants serve as inferior larval hosts. Judging from Sherril’s photo, the Atala has made its way to coastal South Brevard. Yes, the caterpillars will eat coontie leaves but they do grow back. Interestingly the leaves, especially new growth, contain cycain, a toxin harmless to the Atala but poison to predators.
A wide variety of native flowers, particularly white, are used as nectar sources. They are particularly attracted to palm tree inflorescences. Atala butterflies have a short proboscis and need flowers with short corollas, although they have been observed entering head-first into large deep blossoms.
To learn more about these fascinating (I’m not kidding) butterflies see:
Gardener’s glossary: aposematic coloration = warning coloration
The brilliant coloring of the larvae, pupae, and adult Atalas advertises their toxicity and is a perfect example of aposematic coloration. For example, the conspicuous markings of skunks and bright colors of poison arrow frogs warn off potential predators.