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How a small butterfly is making a remarkable comeback in Florida

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Some butterflies are disappearing. They are falling to factors like pesticide use and loss of habitat. But Kerry Sheridan with WUSF reports a native Florida butterfly is making a surprising comeback.

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KERRY SHERIDAN, BYLINE: A small black butterfly with wings just over an inch long eats nectar from a wildflower.

CRAIG HUEGEL: You know, the thing about Atalas is they are so gorgeous.

SHERIDAN: Craig Huegel is director of the Botanical Gardens at the University of South Florida in Tampa, which is now home to several of these Atala butterflies.

HUEGEL: It's a dark butterfly, but it's got this fantastic bright red body that you can't miss, and this iridescent blue markings on the wings.

SHERIDAN: Huegel says for years, he's been involved with the Gardening for Wildlife movement, which urges people to choose local native plants instead of flashy tropical ones imported from abroad.

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HUEGEL: The Atala is, like, maybe the best story because it shows if you put something in your yard, you get something in return.

SHERIDAN: And that something begins with a bushy, dark green plant called the coontie. It's the host plant where these Atala lay their eggs. The caterpillars eat the leaves and attach their chrysalis to them, then turn into butterflies. At the turn of the last century, coontie plants were over harvested to make flour. The plants disappeared from the Florida landscape by the 1930s, and so did Atala butterflies. Then one day in 1979, a botanist named Roger Hammer was walking around on Virginia Key near Miami, when he spotted a wild coontie plant.

ROGER HAMMER: And there was these red larvae with yellow spots down their sides feeding on the leaves. And I wasn't sure what they were. And being an inquisitive naturalist, I collected some, brought them home and reared them.

SHERIDAN: When the first one emerged from its chrysalis with those inky black wings and red body...

HAMMER: Well, it was one of those oh, my God moments. You know, I double-checked to make sure I was seeing what I was - you know, what I believed I was seeing. And sure enough, that's what they were.

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SHERIDAN: They were Atala butterflies. We'll never know how they got there. They're native to Cuba and the Bahamas as well, so they could have been blown in by a big storm. Or maybe they were there all along. Hammer raised more and brought some to nearby botanical gardens and to wild areas of Everglades National Park. Fast-forward to today, and coontie plants are more common again - in the wild, in yards and along medians in the roadways, and Atala butterflies are now seen almost all the way up the east and west coasts of Florida.

JANET PAISLEY: Very excited about that, and so are all the people that come through here and take a look at this. It's pretty amazing.

SHERIDAN: Janet Paisley got some Atala eggs into a preserve in her Bayside neighborhood last year. And now Atalas fly around freely. A few residents walk by, and an Atala lands right on a woman's arm.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Oh, there he goes. Aw, you're friendly little things.

SHERIDAN: These butterflies never made the endangered species list when it became law in 1973, because they were thought to be gone. Sandy Koi has been researching Atalas for 20 years. She says even though they've spread far beyond their traditional range, they're not out of danger.

SANDY KOI: We take away the host plant again. We pave over too much more habitat. We have a devastating hurricane. Any of those factors could wipe this butterfly out again.

SHERIDAN: Not much bigger than a quarter, tiny Atalas don't fly far or pollinate any crucial crops. But nature lovers across Florida say just helping this little butterfly exist again is a thrill.

For NPR News, I'm Kerry Sheridan in Sarasota. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Kerry Sheridan