Butterflies: Lepidoptera


Butterflies now excite the interest of more people than ever. This interest is seen in people's fascination with butterfly gardening, the popularity of new books and wildlife exhibits, public gardens and landscaping plans for highways that include butterflies as a wildlife group.

In Florida more than 160 species breed and about another 200 species have been recorded passing through. Many of these butterflies are not found anywhere else in North America. That may explain the worldwide attention on efforts to prevent the extinction of the Schaus swallowtail butterfly, a large and colorful denizen of the tropical hardwood hammocks in the Florida Keys. Despite the challenges presented by pesticides, bulldozed habitats and even Hurricane Andrew in 1992, the species has survived and is thriving today in a remarkable comeback aided by Floridians.

There are many other remarkable species among fabulous Florida butterflies. Thus for example, in the sandhills around Tampa Bay and Sarasota, or along the east coast beaches such as Crescent Beach south of Jacksonville, one can find two species of giant skippers. These remarkable butterflies fly as fast as 40 mph, darting and weaving through the dunes in search of mates and plants, and are on the wing for only a few days in spring or fall. Much of the rest of the year, they spend as caterpillars, deep inside yucca plants. After the eggs hatch on the leaf surface, the larvae bore their way inside the spiny leaves and then the main stems, before they descend into the root below ground where they will eventually pupate. Before it changes into a pupa, however, the larva, now almost three inches in length, builds a little tower of pebbles and sticky silk, sticking up above the ground or from the center of the plant some five or six inches. It then descends back into its burrow to change into a pupa. The following year, the adult giant skipper emerges and quickly climbs up its burrow into the tower, moistens the silk at the top of the tower with a secretion from its tongue (dissolving the glue there) and crawls out to hang on the tower and pump fluid into its tiny crumpled wings to expand them. If you are lucky enough to see this event, you will note that the butterfly hangs on its tower quietly for an hour or two, until its wings dry and it can try them in free and rapid flight. The adult lives only a couple days in pursuit of sex and then a yucca plant for its eggs.

Gulf Fritillary
Gulf Fritillary  

In the Florida Keys, if you keep your eyes open for small and brightly colored lycaenid butterflies around the flowers and near the ground, you will see lots of interesting behavior. The Bartram's hairstreak, for instance, is endemic to the Keys and the adjacent southern mainland, where it flies in close contact with its larval host plant, a woolly croton which grows in the tropical pinelands. Its bold markings on the underside include a red patch near the base of the tails, and a white line and spots. As the butterfly perches on a branch or lands on a flower, it twitches its hindwings back and forth, waving the two long tails in the breeze like tiny antennae in front of giant red eyes with covering white lines. This false eyespot pattern apparently is effective with insect-eating birds and lizards, because one often encounters these hairstreaks with missing tails or parts of the hindwing - parts they can easily lose without injuring their flight or shortening their lifespan, compared to losing their real head at the other end of their body! Such deflection patterns are found among many other hairstreaks in the keys.

If one finds a long twining balloon vine (Cardiospermum) at the edge of a tropical hardwood hammock, one may have the good fortune to see the Miami blue or the San Christopher's hairstreak (Chlorostrymon simaethis). The females of both species lay their eggs near the base of young pods of balloon vine and the newly hatched larvae eat through the thin outer wall of the pod and feed on the developing seeds. You can find the pods containing larvae of either species by looking for fruit with holes, or for the dark droppings which accumulate inside and may be seen through the thin walls of the pod. The larvae leave the pods to pupate in leaf litter at the base of the vine. Both species are abundant in the upper keys and across south Florida. The Miami blue is bright blue above, with black borders and a grayish underside covered with white-edged darker markings and two pairs of eyespots on the underside of the hindwing. The St. Christopher's hairstreak is about the same size, but has brilliant iridescent violet upperside in the males and black and grayish blue upperside in the female. The underside is a beautifully yellowish-green with a conspicuous silvery white line on all four wings. There is only one tail on each hindwing, with a reddish patch at its base.

Giant Swallowtail
   Giant Swallowtail

Among our largest butterflies in Florida are the 10 swallowtail species, widely distributed across the state. The eastern black swallowtail occurs across the state, along with the white and black striped zebra swallowtail. The black and yellow-spotted polydamas swallowtail is found around pipevines, along with its close relative, the pipevine swallowtail, whose wings shimmer in a bright iridescent bluish-purple. The large black and yellow palamdes swallowtails and bluish- black spicebush swallowtails are common from north Florida to south Florida, and the boldly patterned giant swallowtail is familiar to everyone, as it occurs in every county in the state.

Less known is the Bahamian swallowtail, which flies only in Biscayne National Park and looks a lot like the Schaus swallowtail. One of the most familiar species is the eastern tiger swallowtail, which flies from the Georgia border south to the Big Cypress Swamp region. It is especially interesting because the yellow and black-striped males are matched by yellow and black-striped females, but throughout Florida, one may also encounter a melanic female form of the tiger swallowtail. These dark females reach particular abundance in the southern half of our state, where the pipevine swallowtail also flies in numbers. It is believed that the pipevine swallowtail serves as a distasteful decoy to predators for the dark females. Pipevine larvae pick up poisonous compounds from plants and pass them on to the adults. A bird will grab a pipevine swallowtail adult and receive a sharp distasteful sensation, thereupon releasing it promptly. Predators mistake the dark female tiger swallowtails for the odious pipevine species and leave them alone.

Cloudless Sulphur
Cloudless Sulphur  

Spend much time in Florida between September and November and you are likely to see millions of cloudless sulfur butterflies flying south. Motorists driving east to west can spot thousands per hour heading south or southeastward across the roads. The same migration occurs in the spring, going north, but is less noticeable because it is spread out over more months. This species breeds in our state on cassia weeds and planted shrubs, and takes advantage of the warm summers to the north to have more generations as far north as New York and New England. But all those butterflies turn south again in the fall as the weather changes.

Flying with the cloudless sulfur in their massive migrations are less noticeable numbers of monarchs, primarily because many of the monarchs turn off to the west when they reach the Gulf Coast on their southward movements towards Mexico in the fall. But among the cloudless sulfurs, one will see millions of long-tailed skippers, gulf fritillaries and almost a dozen other species heading south to the tropical end of Florida to winter, or to pass through Miami on their way further south to the deeper tropics.

One of the most amazing stories of Florida butterflies is that of the Atala butterfly, a gorgeous hairstreak resident of south Florida. The males are black with brilliant metallic green on the forewing and a narrow greenish line along the outer border of the hindwing. Females are also black, but have a streak of blue along the rear margin of the forewing. Both sexes have a bright red abdomen, and the underside of the hindwing is black with bright blue spots and a red patch.


This species used to be found abundantly in tropical pinelands and hardwood hammocks in close association with its larval food plant, the native cycad called coontie. The development of its coastal habitat nearly wiped out the Atala. By 1965 there was just one known population living in Hugh Taylor Birch State Park. That colony died and the butterfly was thought to be extinct. But in the late 1970s another colony was found on Virginia Key, and with the aid of local conservationists, potted coontie plants were placed in this last colony and plants with eggs were then moved to other locations and new colonies started. Today the Atala has made a spectacular recovery and is found throughout the urban and natural areas around Ft. Lauderdale and Miami, and has also been successfully introduced into Everglades National Park. Today, you may enjoy this species in your backyard anywhere in south Florida if you take the time and trouble to plant some coontie cycads or more exotic cycad species.



This weekend, take a look around your backyard and see if you can find some of these species of fabulous Florida butterflies. If you don't see many, take a trip to your local nursery and ask to see their butterfly gardening section, where you can pick up a few plants to feed the caterpillars and provide nectar to the adults. Butterflies will make your life a lot more interesting and help your children get attuned to the world of nature. In the process, a great appreciation will grow for these winged wonders of the insect world, whose bright colors, fascinating behavior and even their basic metamorphosis through egg, larval, pupal and adult stages never fails to illicit a sense of wonder and awe in the natural world.

Additional Information:

Image Credit: Article from Florida Wildlife Magazine, May 2000 By Thomas C. Emmel

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