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Which is S. Florida’s most-common butterfly? It starts with an ‘a’ …

Next time you’re gardening in your backyard, don’t be surprised if you spot peacocks and zebras.

Butterflies, that is.

White peacock and zebra heliconian were the second and third most-common species seen during the most recent butterfly counts in Broward County and Palm Beach County.

At No. 1 is the atala, a smallish dark black butterfly with striking turquoise and red markings — once almost extinct and monitored carefully by environmentalists.

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Local chapters of the North American Butterfly Association (NABA) do regular counts, where group leaders and volunteers record the number of species they see during a day, as a way to track which populations are thriving or dwindling.

The Broward and Palm Beach County NABA chapters tallied a total of 495 atalas in their most recent counts. Broward, which has three counts annually, took its last census on Oct. 5. Palm Beach County had its single annual count in June.

Among the other butterflies with the highest numbers: 358 white peacock butterflies, 326 zebra heliconians (Florida’s state butterfly) and 277 gulf fritillaries.

A common sight in South Florida more than 100 years ago, the atala population had almost disappeared by the 1950s due to the insects’ picky eating habits coupled with development, said Sandy Koi, a professional entomologist who volunteers with South Florida’s NABA chapters. The flashy fliers eat nothing but coontie, a brushy native palm-like plant. Coontie was over-harvested by early residents, then plowed under as South Florida settlements became boom towns beginning in the 1920s, according to Koi’s research.

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She credited the atalas’ high numbers this year to population explosions that butterfly species regularly have, which then are followed by periods of decline. The destruction of plants that are butterfly food sources, as well as pesticide poisoning and disease outbreaks, all can contribute to those ups and downs.

Atalas can be easy to find, and more likely to be counted, “because they are going to go any place where there is coontie,” said Alana Edwards, a science educator at Florida Atlantic University’s Center for Environmental Studies in Jupiter. She’s also a volunteer with the Palm Beach County‘s NABA group, which calls itself the Atala Chapter.

While most counts take place in parks or nature preserves, lepidopterists (those who study butterflies) say South Florida’s most common species are surprisingly comfortable in urban digs and home gardens. More than half of the atalas counted recently live at Palm Beach State College on the Palm Beach Gardens campus.

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Atalas also like to hang out at Greenacres City Hall, the Florida Power Light headquarters in Juno Beach and an office building parking lot in Delray Beach.

During Broward’s count, zebras and many other species were spotted at Tamarind Village, a Coconut Creek subdivision that has planted butterfly-friendly landscaping.

Koi warned that people shouldn’t think the atala, or any species, is OK just because of high count numbers. Colonies can disappear at any time, she said. While atalas have been making a comeback in recent years, the state of Florida still lists them as an “imperiled” species because they require very specific conditions and food to survive.

And counting, while a good monitoring tool, is just a snapshot of what’s happening.

Many home butterfly gardens don’t include coontie, as it is slow-growing and expensive. So Koi and other environmental groups have started “coontie rescue” efforts, getting property owners’ permission to move plants and relocating butterfly colonies that are about to be bulldozed.

South Florida butterflies, despite conservation efforts, remain at risk as new buildings, roadways and exotic landscaping destroy their habitats, and pesticides poison them, Koi said.

“The sad part is even when we can rescue a colony, we don’t have a lot of natural areas left to move them to,” she said.

dlade@sunsentinel.com or 954-356-4295

Copyright © 2014, Sun Sentinel

Article source: http://www.sun-sentinel.com/features/home-garden/fl-butterfly-common-species-20141028-story.html