Endangered Miami Blue Butterfly Gets New Lease On Life In UF Breeding Program
EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK — The critically endangered Miami Blue butterfly, one of the rarest insects in North America, will return to South Florida today when University of Florida researchers release several hundred butterflies that have been bred in captivity.
“Last year, the entire Miami Blue population was down to about 50 adults, and their habitat was restricted to Bahia Honda State Park in the Florida Keys,” said Thomas Emmel, director of UF’s McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Environmental Research in Gainesville. “We hope the release will establish a new, self-sustaining colony that will eventually increase in number and repopulate other areas of South Florida.”
Emmel said several hundred mature caterpillars or larvae will be released in Everglades National Park, and they will emerge as butterflies in 10 to 15 days. The adult insects, which usually live for about two weeks, will be monitored on a monthly basis to see how well they are reproducing.
He said it is difficult to predict how many will survive in the wild, and the release is the first step in a more extensive reintroduction effort that will take place over the next year.
At one time, the Miami Blue butterfly was common in the coastal areas of South Florida. Beginning the 1970s, coastal development and activities such as mosquito spraying caused the population to drop to critically low levels. After Hurricane Andrew swept through the area in 1992, Emmel and other researchers thought the Miami Blue was extinct.
In 1999, when a butterfly enthusiast photographed the insect in Bahia Honda State Park and sent the photos to Emmel, he was surprised to find a colony of Miami Blue butterflies in the Florida Keys.
“When the numbers of any species are this low, their very existence is at great risk,” Emmel said.
John Capinera, chairman of the entomology and nematology department at UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, said he hopes the Miami Blue butterfly can be saved because it is part of South Florida’s rich and exotic fauna. “Saving the butterfly is a high priority, but there also is a need for mosquito control to prevent transmission of the West Nile virus and other mosquito-borne diseases, and these two priorities may be in conflict.”
To raise the butterflies in captivity, Jaret Daniels, director of the project, harvested 100 pinhead-sized butterfly eggs from nickerbean plants in Bahia Honda State Park. The Miami Blues were then reared in UF’s new lepidoptera research facility at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville. The center, which is scheduled to open to the public Aug. 14, is designed for research and conservation work, in addition to housing one of the world’s largest butterfly collections and a live butterfly exhibit.
“In the wild, anywhere from 1 percent to 5 percent of butterfly eggs result in a reproducing adult,” Daniels said. “In our captive propagation program, that number is closer to 70 percent.”
He said the butterfly needs three to five weeks to go from egg to adult. Emmel and Daniels have raised 13 generations of Miami Blues over the past 15 months, resulting in more than 9,000 individuals, and they expect to release several hundred in South Florida this week.
In 2000, when butterfly lovers and researchers learned how few Miami Blues were left, the North American Butterfly Association petitioned for federal endangered status for the butterfly. This level of protection would provide penalties for those caught catching, possessing, harassing or selling the butterfly, a critical step to protect the few that were left.
Newspaper articles and Miami Blue Web sites generated strong public support, especially in South Florida. Citing a backlog of other species needing protection, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency that grants endangered status, delayed the request.
Undaunted, the hobbyists and researchers pressed on. In December 2002, in an emergency ruling, Ken Haddad, executive director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, granted temporary endangered status. The commission’s board confirmed the endangered status in November 2003. Haddad’s action helped provide the impetus for the repopulation project to begin.
The federal and state fish and wildlife agencies have provided funding for the UF research project. Additional cooperation has come from the Florida Parks Department and the National Park Service.