Endangered Butterfly Gets a Boost

Biologist removes swallowtail caterpiller from vial.

In August at Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park, Florida Park Service biologist Rebecca Collins joined butterfly technicians from the University of Florida’s McGui​re Center for Lepidoptera & Biodiversity to release dozens of Schaus’ swallowtail caterpillars.

After a worrying population decline, Schaus’ swallowtail can be found in just a few locations scattered from Biscayne Bay to Key Largo. Now the species is getting a boost from researchers and park protection. Another caterpillar release is scheduled for September.

A Schaus swallotail butterfly
A Schaus swallowtail butterfly. Photo courtesy National Park Service, Rick Cech.

Releases like these have brought the Schaus’ swallowtail back from the brink of extinction. The project is a partnership between Florida State Parks, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the University of Florida.

A schaus swallowtail caterpiller with blue markings
A Schaus' swallowtail caterpillar.

The Schaus’ swallowtail, with its dark-brown wings, cream-yellow markings and dashes of red, nearly disappeared from the wild. The butterflies depend on the tropical hardwood hammock ecosystem that historically ranged from south Miami to lower Matecumbe Key.

Much of the tropical hardwood hammocks originally found in the Florida Keys have been lost to development. Researchers say there were as few as four wild Schaus’ swallowtails in 2012.

Scientists took action to increase the butterflies’ chance of survival through captive rearing, larval releases and monitoring wild populations. In 2014, the University of Florida released 50 adult Schaus’ swallowtail butterflies and 200 caterpillars for the first time.

Volunteers survey the population from April to end of June, looking for the butterflies, either caterpillars, pupae or adult butterflies. Schaus’ swallowtail can remain pupae, or in their chrysalises, for anywhere from two months to two years.

Science in Florida State Parks

This article was published in the Real Florida ℠ Connection, the Florida State Parks e-newsletter. Sign-up to get updates and stories from your state parks the first week of every month.