If you’re a fan of Gator football, then this next ORANGE AND BLUE! bug is the species you want symbolizing the upcoming 2014 season, because this butterfly knows a thing or two about comebacks.
Native to the far southern tip of peninsular Florida, the atala hairstreak, Eumaeus atala, was believed to be extinct from 1937 to 1959. Since then, it’s bounced back to the point where it’s becoming more common in its native range, common enough that it’s occasionally considered a pest at some plant nurseries.
The fortunes of this colorful insect – the largest hairstreak butterfly in the eastern United States – are inextricably bound up with the plant its larvae feed on, the coontie, Zamia integrifolia, which is also known as the coontie palm, Florida arrowroot and wild sago.
This plant is a woody cycad native to Florida, Georgia and the Caribbean. It produces tubers that are poisonous when eaten raw but can yield an edible starch after extensive processing.
For centuries, native peoples in Florida, notably the Calusa and Timucua, had used the coontie as a food source. Beginning in the mid-19th century, European settlers began harvesting the tubers for commercial starch production, which reduced populations of the plant. Development in Southeast Florida wiped out countless specimens as well.
Atala hairstreak caterpillars feed exclusively on coontie leaves, so when this food source became scarce, so did the butterfly.
Fortunately, the coontie’s unique appearance has caused it to gain popularity as an ornamental plant in recent years, and the plant is now common in Southeast Florida again. As coontie populations rebounded, so did the atala hairstreak.
One other notable fact about this “comeback kid” – its bright blue and orange-red markings are an example of aposematic coloration, warning predators that this bug tastes awful. As they feed, atala hairstreak caterpillars accumulate a toxic compound from the coontie, known as cycasin. The compound remains in the adult butterfly’s tissues, providing a permanent deterrent to hungry birds and other predators.
It’s believed that the presence of cycasin also accounts for the atala hairstreak’s slow flight and reluctance to flee when disturbed by larger organisms – this butterfly’s in no rush to go anywhere, because it’s confident in its ability to ward off threats.
Now, let’s hope this year’s football squad can gain some of this little butterfly’s confidence.
And, if there’s still the smallest shred of doubt that the atala hairstreak is ORANGE AND BLUE! to the core, here’s a video of some drinking the orange and blue-est beverage on the planet, Gatorade.