With black velvet-like wings, a vibrant orange-red abdomen and metallic specks of blue on its wings, the Florida native insect faced extinction from a disrupted natural habitat.
In an effort to conserve the species and educate the public, the museum is conducting an ongoing project researching the biology of the atala. Although not funded or recognized by the state, the project partners with the Brevard Zoo along with other Florida zoos.
“It’s a showy butterfly and it tells a nice story in Florida,” said Jaret Daniels, assistant curator of Lepidoptera at the Florida Museum of Natural History.
With about 100 butterflies bred at the museum, the project is led by UF graduate student Sandy Koi, who has been researching the atala for about 20 years, Daniels said. Her main work with the project started about two years ago.
Their main goal is to determine the necessary elements to create a sustainable environment for wild atala populations.
“You have to know what everybody in the ecosystem needs,” she said.
The butterfly specimens used in the project are bred and held in two laboratories on UF’s campus: the Special Projects Laboratory at the Florida Museum of Natural History and at the UF Entomology and Nematology Department.
The atala is one of 70 endangered butterfly species in Florida, Koi said. However, the butterfly’s conservation status is not recognized by the state and federal government, the International Union for Conservation of Nature or any other institutions.
Koi describes the atala as a sedentary animal living in isolated and fragmented colonies in southeast Florida. Previous efforts to conserve the species led to two rediscoveries of the butterfly in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
“It was thought to be extinct,” Koi said.
The U.S. Federal Government termed the atala “imperiled,” so it is not listed as an endangered species.
Both Koi and Daniels hope the project will lead to a better understanding of the atala’s environmental constraints. They question why the butterfly’s habitat is limited to southeast Florida and what elements are necessary to help keep its habitat sustainable.
UF lepidopterists hope the atala will serve as a model for insect and nature conservation on a global scale with the results of the project helping other countries that face conservation issues with butterflies.
“It’s a nice conservation story to tell people.” Daniels said. “It’s (the atala) a very highly charismatic organism.”