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Tiny iridescent Atala dwarfed by Aristolochia leaf dotted with golden butterfly eggs

Explore Mar 1, 2012 #57

 

The Atala is a very small butterfly! But brilliant and iridescent! No, this isn't a giant leaf. It's a new, unfolding one which simply emphasizes how small this rare beauty is!

 

The Atala is a strange butterfly to photograph. The colored areas are vague at the margins so the pigment looks like it's been dusted on a bit carelessly. But look at its marvelous tones... deep velvety blue, bright electric blue and brilliant red orange! It is fast moving so getting a shot at all is a thrill! Usually looks like a vibrant patch of astounding flying color and it's gone. The Atala is also unique in that its bright colors are on the underside of the wings not the top, and it keeps its wings closed and upright as soon as it lands. The topside of the Atala's wings is quite plain and darker. No big, brilliant open-wing shots like you can take of a Monarch! This image was shot at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden but Arch Creek is where the Atala story centered.

 

Native Americans used Coontie as a source of starch. In fact, Coontie is a Seminole word that means “bread” or “white root” because the roots can be made into flour. The short, woody stem and rootstock of the Coontie grows almost completely underground and produces a terminal crown of stiff, evergreen, pinnate leaves up to 3 feet long. Coontie plants contain a natural toxin, which Atala larvae accumulate in their bodies and use to repel birds. Without Coontie, adult Atalas have no place to lay eggs. No eggs means no new generations. Cootie is sporadic in pinelands and hammocks throughout nearly all peninsular Florida and the Keys. In an effort to preserve the Atala, the Coontie is being used increasingly in landscaping. Here in Miami, it is growing at Arch Creek East Environmental Preserve. Arch Creek was an early Tequesta Indian settlement in North Miami. Arch Creek is spanned by a natural limestone bridge.

 

Around 1858 two ambitious pioneers used the creek and its natural bridge as a site for a Coontie starch mill. These early entrepreneurs learned how to clean the poisonous roots and dammed up the waterway under the bridge diverting the flow through a sluice they carved out of a solid limestone bank. The water turned a wooden wheel attached to a nail-studded grinder, which mashed the Coontie roots into a paste-like pulp. The resulting starch was then soaked and strained to remove any remaining poison. Laid out in wooden racks, the starch dried quickly and the sun bleached it white. In the early 1900s, several commercial factories in South Florida processed Coontie roots for the manufacture of arrowroot biscuits. But Coontie starch was not as successful as the pioneers thought, and the mill was abandoned several years later. The water sluice was filled in and paved over, and was not rediscovered until archaeologists excavated it in 1972.

 

Atala

Aristolochia leaves, Zebra longwing eggs

Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, Miami, FL.

 

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Taken on February 26, 2012