Comeback Caterpillar

A rare creature quietly returns to Key Biscayne

They also planted the coontie; they received young plants from university labs and tropical gardens, where they had been cultivated in greenhouses. Elizabeth Golden, who has been the Bill Baggs park biologist since 1994, said only a couple dozen of the rare plants were planted. "We were trying to find coontie grown in South Florida because we were trying to be biologically correct," she said. "It wasn't easy."

Then, in 1999, a University of Florida graduate student named Eileen Smith planted 30 young coonties in Crandon Park, about two miles from Bill Baggs. Smith scattered some atala larvae, which had been raised in a lab, on the leaves and placed nets over the plants for protection. Years passed, and the plants and atalas thrived together. Around the end of 2002, butterfly watchers at Bill Baggs began to spot the atala. "We were like, wow!" said Golden. "They found the few plants we had." Now Golden sees five to ten atalas a day.

Enter Wright. He wanted to know how the butterflies -- which live only two or three days and are not strong fliers -- got from one end of the island to the other. "They would have had to jump from plant to plant in people's yards," he said. Wright had an idea: He would look for people who had planted the coontie on Key Biscayne, and track the butterfly's path.

Fairchild Tropical Garden biologist Sam Wright is on the trail of the atala butterfly, which was almost extinct not long ago
Tamara Lush
Fairchild Tropical Garden biologist Sam Wright is on the trail of the atala butterfly, which was almost extinct not long ago

So this past May 23, Wright posted an ad on Craigslist: "Attention: Key Biscayne residents needed for butterfly research," it read. "What I would like to know is if you have coonties in your yard." There was also a photo of the butterfly and the coontie. So far he has received no response.

In the meantime, he has been reading up on the atala and "piecing together the puzzle," he said.

Wright has come to view the atala as a positive sign in South Florida, an indication that, with man's help, nature can prevail in the middle of all of this development. "As disturbed and fragmented as Florida is, there's still some beauty left," he said, turning to walk into the verdant Key Biscayne jungle.

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