Atala Butterfly at Enchanted Forest Park
WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHY – ENCHANTED FOREST PARK, NORTH MIAMI, FL
This photograph of an Atala Butterfly was taken at Enchanted Forest Park located in North Miami, FL. The camera gear used in this Atala Butterfly photo was a Nikon D90 body attached to a Nikkor 60mm 2.8 lens.
The Atala, Eumaeus atala, is a small colorful butterfly in the family Lycaenidae. It is found in southeastern Florida, the Bahamas, Cuba, the Cayman Islands, Costa Rica, and Panama (probable on other Caribbean islands). Its coloration and habits are unique among butterflies within its range.
The atala is a great example of aposematic (warning) coloration throughout its life cycle. The brightly colored caterpillar feeds on cycads which contain a toxic secondary plant chemical cycasin that it retains in its body for life. Birds, lizards, and other animals may attempt to prey on the caterpillar and adults, but find them distasteful and learn to avoid these brightly patterned insects. In Florida, the caterpillar feeds on a native cycad, Zamia pumila, called Coontie, as well as introduced ornamental cycads. (Another name for the butterfly is Coontie Hairstreak.) In Cuba, the cycad Cycas revoluta is used, and in Panama the cycad Zamia neurophyllidia.
Adult Atala butterflies take flower nectar and sometimes roost in trees. Adults fly through much of the year. The natural habitat is open brushy areas and subtropical hammocks, often in pine woodlands. Many populations now exist in suburban areas with ornamental cycads. Adults keep close to a site with host plants, thus the species forms small colonies. The females, however, may disperse in search of more hosts. The butterfly’s flight is slow, unlike the swift, erratic flight of many other Lycaenidae. Like many lepidoptera, male Atalas have hair pencils (“coremata”) on their abdomens used in courtship–the male hovers in front of the female, wafting pheromones exuded from the pencils in her direction. Eggs are laid in clusters of 10-50 on the leaf tips of the host plant. Larvae feed on the leaves. Pupation is usually on the host plant.
The Florida subspecies of this butterfly (Eumaeus atala florida) were at one time believed to have become extinct due to over-harvest of its host plant Coontie. It was not collected in Florida from 1937 until 1959. The atala is now common locally in southeast Florida rebounding to some extent as it has begun to use ornamental cycads planted in suburban areas.