Vibrant red insects return to Florida Everglades. They were once thought to be extinct

NPS photo by Max Taks

Vibrant red caterpillars have been found clustered on plants at Everglades National Park and closer inspection has revealed it is not another invasive species in South Florida.

The insects are a species of native butterfly once thought to be extinct, according to the National Park Service.

“After an absence of 35 years, the Atala butterfly has returned to Everglades National Park,” the park reported in a Sept. 2 Facebook post.

“While there were attempts to reintroduce the Atala into the park around Long Pine Key from 2004 to 2008, no evidence exists that the introduced butterflies survived. Now that a breeding population has been confirmed in the park again, the Atala may spread to reclaim more of its native range on its own.”

In an odd coincidence, the caterpillars were found squirming outside the park’s visitor center, officials said.

Atala are a striking butterfly, with black and blue wings that span about 1.7 inches and a bright red abdomen. In their caterpillar phase, they are bright red, with two rows of yellow spots down their back.

The demise of the species was linked to chemicals sprayed to control mosquitoes in South Florida, experts say.

Growing development in South Florida also hurt, because Atala are picky about their host plants.

“The only host plant for Atala caterpillars is a cycad plant called coontie, making this species a habitat specialist found only in South Florida and some parts of the Bahamas and Cuba,” the park said.

“The over harvesting of coontie for its roots sent the butterfly into decline, and it was thought to be extinct for a time.”

It’s suspected Atala may benefit from a growing trend of using coontie plants in landscaping projects, and park officials encourage homeowners to keep doing it.

“Atala caterpillars need large numbers of coontie plants to support them since they eat constantly, so this evidence of breeding in the park could be a sign of habitat restoration beyond park borders,” the park said.

“Who doesn’t love a good comeback story?”

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