Butterfly thought to be extinct spotted in Sanibel

Reporter: Elizabeth Biro Writer: Matthew Seaver
Atala butterfly
Atala butterfly

An animal that scientists thought was extinct has been rediscovered! Atala butterflies vanished decades ago but were spotted just three weeks ago in Sanibel.

The Atala butterfly is black with fluorescent blue scales and an orange body.  If you haven’t heard of the Atala butterfly, you’re not alone. It was believed to be extinct in the 1930s.

Atala butterfly
Atala butterfly

Sue Ramos works at the Sanibel-Captiva conservation foundation’s native landscape and garden center. She finds an immense amount of joy in her job. It’s quiet, the office is beautiful, and sometimes something miraculous happens.

“We came in and just walked through it and discovered one of the butterflies on the ground,” said Ramos.

It wasn’t just any butterfly. “She knew before she picked it up. She saw it and said ah that’s the Atala,” said Ramos.

Ramos said in the 1930s the Atala was thought to be extinct.  In the late 1970s, a small colony was found in Miami-Dade County. A few weeks ago, the rare Atala was spotted in Sanibel.

“And then it was a matter of days later, we just started discovering the caterpillars everywhere. And we’re like, yeah, it’s here. It’s here. This is so exciting,” Ramos said.

This is the Atala as a caterpillar.

Atala caterpillar. (Credit: WINK News)

“These guys are on the coontie plant, which is their only host plant,” said Ramos. The Atala live, grow and survive off that plant.

Overharvesting of coontie as a starch substitute in the 1930s is what led to the Atala’s presumed extinction.

Ramos and WINK News reporter Elizabeth Biro decided to go look and see if they could find the butterfly for themselves. Instead of finding one, they found three.

The Atala is most commonly found in southeast Florida and the Caribbean.

The butterfly is still considered very rare and threatened, but if you slow down and pay attention, you may find something really special.

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