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

Comeback Caterpillar

On a recent weekday, Samuel Wright plowed through the scrubby bushes at Crandon Park, passing the stinging nettle, stepping over a prickly pear cactus, and carefully avoiding a poisonwood tree with shiny brown leaves. He wore a white T-shirt printed with a road race logo, tan cargo pants, and a light brown hat. He looked like he was on safari. Though it was midday and the sun was at its brightest, Wright didn’t sweat much — just a little bit around his wire-rim glasses. As a Fairchild Tropical Garden biologist who specializes in restoration of endangered beach habitats, he was well acquainted with the oppressive stickiness of Key Biscayne. Wright abruptly stopped walking when he reached a small, sandy clearing in the brush. He bent down to examine a plant that resembled a cross between a fern and a weed. "Here's one," he said, pointing at a coontie plant (which is much more fun to say than its Latin version: Zamia integrifolia). "Oh, look," Wright said. "It's got some larvae on it."

A half-dozen tiny caterpillars lazed atop the thin green fronds. They looked like little red blobs with yellow spots. In a steady voice nearly drowned out by the wind rustling nearby sabal palms, Wright explained that within a few days, the blobs would produce a subtropical miracle: the atala butterfly. With its velvety black wings, turquoise blue spots, and tiny red body, the atala was until recently all but an afterthought on Key Biscayne -- and throughout Florida. The butterfly was so near extinction that it wasn't even recorded on the federal endangered species list. By 1965, it was believed to have disappeared from the wild altogether.

Says Wright: "It really is one of the few feel-good comeback stories in nature."


atala butterfly

The 36-year-old biologist grew up in New Jersey, far from the subtropics. As a boy, he collected snakes, frogs, and turtles; at the University of Florida, he majored in wildlife ecology and helped restore underwater vegetation by planting 2000 sprigs of grass in the Rainbow River near Gainesville. In college he at first thought it would be sexy to work with endangered animals like cougars or seals. But then he realized the animals' habitats were also endangered -- so he changed his focus to rare plants.

Wright has spent the past six years on Key Biscayne counting and cataloging the federally endangered beach cluster vine, a wispy green plant with little white flowers. He has become an expert on the inland areas of Crandon and Bill Baggs parks -- the vast wilderness off the nature trails. He can easily spot marsh rabbits, which he classifies as "kind of cool, even though they eat my beach vines." He has seen three-foot-long iguanas and has stumbled upon amorous couples in various stages of undress.

Because he is intimately familiar with the plants and insects at Crandon Park, his Fairchild bosses earlier this year asked him to assemble an atala presentation for a July 29 butterfly gardening symposium. Though Wright has a butterfly garden at his Dadeland condo, he didn't anticipate that he would be delving into something of a mystery when he agreed to research how the atala has returned, like Lazarus, to Key Biscayne.

"Sam is so knowledgeable about Key Biscayne," said Suzanne Koptur, a biology professor at the University of Miami, who knows Wright through her own research on the atala. She adds that his talk during Fairchild's "Butterfly Days" should inspire others to plant local greenery. "We need to keep planting native plants," she said. "Otherwise everything associated with the plants, like the atala, will be gone."

To be able to talk about the tiny atala, which grows to be about the size of a quarter, Wright had to learn about the coontie plant. The butterfly eats this foliage during its caterpillar stage. Although its leaves are poisonous to most other insects and animals, the atala gobbles them up. The toxins are insurance against bird attacks, Wright explains. "The word for that is aposematic; the caterpillars are toxic to predators as well because they eat the plant."

For hundreds of years, the plant grew wild and served a purpose for the natives -- Seminole Indians ground the coontie's nubby brown root into starch for flour. When Europeans drove the Indians into the Everglades in the mid-Nineteenth Century, they took over harvesting of the coontie, so much so that it became one of pioneer Dade County's biggest industries. The plant became extremely rare in the wild.

Then it got worse for the coontie and its butterfly accompaniment. The plants preferred the sandy, higher ground of the so-called "beach strand'' on barrier islands -- which happened to be the best location for houses and condo buildings. As the plants were uprooted, so was the atala. By the mid-1960s, both had nearly died out.

In 1992, some 30 years after the last atala was spotted on Key Biscayne, Hurricane Andrew buzz-sawed Bill Baggs' Australian pines and other foliage. In the years that followed, park biologists planted greenery around the park. Not the pines, because they weren't native, but other wild things such as sabal palms and ficus.

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.

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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