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Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Atala Butterflies Return from Near Extinction

Since the 1970’s the Earth’s insect population suffered severe population declines as well as loss of diversity. The NY Times 2018 article, The Insect Apocalypse Is Here. What does it mean for the rest of life on Earth?, reported: 

The German study found that, measured simply by weight, the overall abundance of flying insects in German nature reserves had decreased by 75 percent over just 27 years. If you looked at midsummer population peaks, the drop was 82 percent.

An Atala butterfly emerges from its cocoon
Photo credit: Holly Elmore Images
According to the November 2019 Somerset Wildlife Trust Insect Declines and Why They Matter Report by Professor Dave Goulson, 41% of insect species are threatened with extinction.

Though the overall insect-population is in a dire state, there are ample success stories of species restoration. A common contributing factor to success stories is the growing trend of replacing non-native ornamental plants with native flora and greenery in residential, commercial, and community landscapes. The 2021 RiA Magazine article, Urban Carbon Sinks: Rewilding Urban Landscapes, introduces the Holocene extinction, the Insect Apocalypse, and how rewilding urban landscapes may avoid catastrophe.

Homegrown National Park
The December 2022 RiA Magazine article, Soil & Water: the foundation of life, features award-winning author and renowned entomologist Doug Tallamy's Homegrown National Park  (HNP.)

HNP is a grass roots call-to-action to regenerate biodiversity. According to Doug,

In the past, we have asked one thing of our gardens: that they be pretty. Now they have to support life, sequester carbon, feed pollinators, and manage water.

National awareness is HNP's product along with a request for the below actions on the more than 40-million acres of private lawn in the United States:

  1. Reduce lawns.
  2. Plant more native plants.
  3. Remove invasive and/or non-native plants.
The What's the Rush 24-minute video by Doug is a superb overview of the critical status of the insect population along with simple lifestyle changes by individuals that collectively make a huge difference.

Success Story
The once abundant Atala butterflies were thought to be extinct from the 1930’s until 1959 when a few specimens were discovered. In 1979, a colony of Atala butterflies was found on an island off the Miami Coast. It is likely that the current population are descendants of the island butterflies.

Atala butterfly cocoons
Photo credit: Holly Elmore Images

Like the Monarch butterfly’s relationship with the milkweed plant, the Atala butterfly has a symbiotic relationship with the coontie palm; the female only lays eggs on the coontie palm. Thus, when early Florida settlers overharvested the coontie palm for its starchy root, the Atala butterfly population declined and disappeared along with its host plant.

With its recent popularity as a native ornamental plant in Florida landscapes, the abundant urban coonties support healthy populations of the once nearly extinct Atala butterfly.

The Elemental Impact (Ei) Rewilding Urban Landscapes Pilots contain three coonties, one in the front-yard native-plant landscape and two within the backyard food forest. This summer Zach Zildjian, the pilots’ curator, noticed a female Atala butterfly laying eggs on one of the food forest coonties. 

Over the next weeks, Ei Founder & CEO Holly Elmore documented the transformation of ravenous caterpillars into the chrysalis stage along with their emergence as magnificent butterflies. With perfect timing, Holly captured one Atala literally emerging from its cocoon. The Holly Elmore Images (HEI) album, Atala butterflies return from near extinction, gives a pictorial recount of the magical experience.

Coontie Palm
Once abundant in South Florida the coontie palm (Zamia integrifolia) supported a healthy Atala butterfly population. Poisonous in its unaltered states, the coontie palm gifts the Atala caterpillars and butterflies a natural protection from predators via their poisonous state.

Coontie in the Ei Rewilding Pilot
Photo credit: Holly Elmore Images
Often called a fossil plant, the coontie palm is a cycad, an ancient plant group that thrived along with the dinosaurs during the Jurassic Period; most likely, the cycads were a predominant food source for the many herbivores. According to a 2011 Berkeley News article, cycads are among the most endangered plants. The coontie palm is the only cycad native to Florida, and according to several sources the only one native to North America.

With proper processing, the water-soluble toxin cycasin washes away from pulverized coontie root, which transforms into an edible flour for bread, porridge, and cakes. Indigenous tribes mastered the cleansing practices and shared it with the Seminoles; around 1825, the Seminoles taught early settlers how to process the poisonous coontie root. Additionally, the dried rhizomes were used for medicinal  purposes, treating ailments such as stomachaches and skin irritations. 

As south Florida populated, the coontie palm was overharvested, and the once common coontie palm segued into an endangered species. As the coontie requires a decade to reach a harvestable state, natural species replenishment was not feasible.

According to the February 2020 The Palm Beach Post article, Coontie, Florida’s only native cycad, wins National Award from GCA:
During World War I, as many as 18 tons of coontie were processed daily for the military. This led to the original decimation of the plant, which was further depleted by overdevelopment in the later housing booms
The coontie is listed as a Commercially Exploited Plant [(FDACS/DPI rule 5B-40.0055 (C)]; thus, harvesting coontie in the wild is prohibited without a permit.

With emergence of native-plant landscapes, nurseries began cultivating the hardy coontie for residential, commercial, and community planting purposes. Per the UF/IFAS Extension Sarasota County:  A Florida-Friendly Landscaping™ Tale of Survival and Resurgence (Part I): Coontie Cycads:
As modern landscapers shifted towards plants that utilize less fertilizer and less water, coontie was finally recognized for this crucial use. Adaptable, low maintenance, drought tolerant, and with evergreen tropical fronds; this plant has surged in popularity. You commonly see the plant serving as an excellent foundation or accent plant in various landscape designs.

The coontie’s status as a rare native plant also adds an ecological dimension to any landscape. Encouraging local biodiversity and supporting the caterpillars of the rare Atala butterfly. You are not only beautifying your surroundings but also contributing to the conservation efforts of these imperiled species.
Atala butterfly recently
emerged from its cocoon

Photo credit: Holly Elmore Images
The re-emergence of the near-extinct coontie as well as the Atala butterfly is a prime example of the extended benefits of embracing native-plant landscapes. By recognizing the Florida-friendly growing traits of the native coontie, commercial nurseries and landscapers began the restoration of two nearly extinct species.

As native-plant landscapes segue into customary practice and harmful pesticides and fertilizer use is diminished, population-restoration success stories like the Atala butterfly along with its host plant the coontie palm (Zamia integrifolia) will be common, rather than miraculous. 

Additional resources:

Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Division of Plant Industry: Do You Know Coontie? Florida’s Native Indians and Settlers Did.


Tax-deductible donations in any amount are greatly appreciated to support Ei's important work. 


About Elemental Impact:
Elemental Impact (Ei) is a 501(c)3 non-profit founded in 2010 as the home to the Zero Waste Zones, the forerunner in the nation for the commercial collection of food waste for compost. In June 2017, Ei announced the Era of Recycling Refinement was Mission Accomplished and entered the Era of Regeneration. Current focus areas include Nature PrevailsSoil Health | Regenerative Agriculture, and Water Use | Toxicity.

The Regeneration in ACTION Magazine articles, From Organic Certification to Regenerative Agriculture to Rewilding Landscapes: an evolution towards soil integrity and SOIL & WATER: the foundation of life, published to explain and substantiate the importance of Ei’s rewilding urban landscapes work within the Nature Prevails focus area.

The Holly Elmore Images Rewilding Urban Landscapes-album folder documents two active pilots: the Native-Plant Landscape Pilot and the Backyard Permaculture-Oriented Pilot.

To work with industry leaders to create best regenerative operating practices where the entire value-chain benefits, including corporate bottom lines, communities, and the environment. Through education and collaboration, establish best practices as standard practices.

Ei’s tagline – Regeneration in ACTION – is the foundation for Ei endeavors.

The following mantra is at the core of Ei work:

Ei is a creator, an incubator.
Ei determines what could be done that is not being done and gets it done.
Ei brings the possible out of impossible.
Ei identifies pioneers and creates heroes.

For additional information, contact Holly Elmore at 404-510-9336 |


  1. Holly. I am so impressed with who you are, what you do, and your wide range of wisdom. I'm not wanting to show my wide range of ignorance. Thanks for the lesson. I will cherish it all.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read the article; I am happy that you found it educational.