Dwindling Numbers Of Schaus Swallowtail Butterfly In Biscayne National Park Lead To Collecting Decision

Dwindling numbers of the Schaus Swallowtail butterfly in Biscayne National Park have led to an emergency order to collect up to four female butterflies and eggs. USFWS photo.

In a bid to keep the Schaus Swallowtail butterfly from blinking into extinction, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials have authorized the collection of up to four of the colorful butterflies in Biscayne National Park.

The decision came after a survey for the butterflies in the park, one of the last habitats for the butterfly, turned up just five individuals, down from 41 a year ago. “We’ve only confirmed three of the five butterflies sighted this year, and only one of those counted was a female,” said Dr. Jaret Daniels, lead project researcher for the University of Florida.

The survey will continue while the USFWS, National Park Service, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the University of Florida initiate the emergency action to collect up to four female Schaus Swallowtail butterflies within the park, a Park Service release said.

Biological technicians count the endangered butterfly at Biscayne National Park near Miami each year.

The emergency authorization also allows the University of Florida crew to collect their eggs and then propagate them at the University of Florida McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity. Adult butterflies would be released into their natural habitat in Biscayne National Park.

“Intervention doesn’t guarantee survival, but it does offer hope and puts us into a better position to save this species,” said Dr. Daniels.

Once collected, females will be temporarily confined in a mesh cage on site in natural habitat, where they will hopefully lay eggs on host plants. New eggs will be removed daily. Females will only be confined for up to four days and then released.

“National parks like Biscayne protect entire ecosystems for the benefit of all species,” said Biscayne Superintendent Mark Lewis. “Right now, with our partners in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission and the University of Florida, we must focus on a fragile but important part of the ecosystem -- the Schaus swallowtail -- to ensure it doesn’t disappear from the planet.”

As pollinators, butterflies are important members of south Florida ecosystem. They’re also good indicators of the ecological quality of a habitat, as they are important components of the food chain, particularly as larvae.

The Schaus swallowtail was initially listed under the Endangered Species Act as “Threatened” in 1976 and then “Endangered” in 1984. During the 2011 survey, there were 41 individuals counted – 35 in Biscayne National Park (mostly on Elliott Key) and six outside the park on north Key Largo. Recovery of the Schaus swallowtail is hindered by insecticide use, habitat destruction, droughts, hurricanes and illegal collection.

“We’re encouraging concerned citizens to help us save this species by submitting new scientific and commercial information and data related to the status of the Schaus swallowtail butterfly throughout its range in south Florida,” said Larry Williams, Field Supervisor of the South Florida Ecological Services Office.