Butterflies and Caterpillars in the Garden: Happy Birthday to me!

This morning was nice and calm and I decided to wander around and see what I could find in the garden. Found a few large Atala caterpillars munching on my coontie out back. They're very hard to take a good photo of, because depth of field is such a problem. Coontie are low-growing plants, so it's difficult to maneuver a tripod into position, so the "traditional" digital answer to this problem (aligning and stacking multiple exposures taken with slightly different focus points) is much harder to achieve. So the best I've been able to do is hold as still as possible, try to align the axes of the lens with those of the subject, and hope for the best. Here's a passable image, probably the best I've managed despite having the photo op literally 15 feet from my back door whenever I feel like it:
Atala Blue (Eumaeus atala). Boca Raton, FL, September 29, 2016.

Atala Blue (Eumaeus atala). Boca Raton, FL, September 29, 2016.

After I was done frustrating myself with this subject in the back yard, I wandered around to the font, where I found this lovely Gulf Fritillary butterfly resting on the Bahama Senna:
Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae). Boca Raton, FL, September 29, 2016.

Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae). Boca Raton, FL, September 29, 2016.

Unlike the ones flying up high in the passionvine out back, this one was very still. I suspect it was freshly emerged and still drying its wings; they're not normally this quiescent in the bright morning sunlight. The native plant society might not think too much of my garden, but the native insects appear to enjoy it anyway!

Atalas in November

It seems that every November the Atalas cruise through my neighborhood. There are supposed to be several broods per year, but each and every documented sighting I have had on my property has been in the month of November. And last December I installed their larval host plant, coontie (Zamia pumila), so they might have a reason to stay:
Florida coontie (Zamia punila). Boca Raton, FL, November 24, 2014.

Florida coontie (Zamia punila). Boca Raton, FL, November 24, 2014.

Of course, not every butterfly that stays is happy to have done so:
Atala (Eumaeus atala) hairstreak butterfly. Boca Raton, FL, November 13, 2014.

Atala (Eumaeus atala) hairstreak butterfly that has seen better days. Boca Raton, FL, November 13, 2014.

Looks to me like the spider got it all wrapped up and then decided that the chemical brew in the butterfly's body wasn't too much fun to ingest. I'm not sure, but that's my working hypothesis. After all, the coontie, a cycad native to Florida, has some nasty chemicals in it to prevent herbivory, but the atala larvae are able to not just neutralize them but use them to their advantage to prevent insectivory! (The cuticle of the larva is apparently "covered with droplets of a bitter-tasting liquid." How do you suppose the researchers found out what it tasted like?) In my yard, the coontie plants on which the life cycle of this butterfly depends are located next to several ready nectar sources, chief among them the butterfly attracter par excellence, Cordia globosa, with its small inflorescences present throughout the year. Here's a shot taken on a windy day:
Atala hairstreak (Eumaeus atala), Boca Raton, FL, November 23, 2014.

Atala hairstreak (Eumaeus atala), Boca Raton, FL, November 23, 2014.

The bright reddish-orange abdomen and the iridescent blues on the dark black wings are eye-catching, to say the least. An unusual survival strategy in nature, unless, like this butterfly, the flashy insect is advertising not just its presence, but its don't-mess-with-me inedibility. The coontie has similar warning signs, with the bright red seeds of the seed cones saying "don't eat me":
Seed cone of the Florida coontie (Zamia punila). Boca Raton, FL, November 24, 2014.

Seed cone of the Florida coontie (Zamia punila). Boca Raton, FL, November 24, 2014.

These warning colors are one way noxious chemicals are signaled to would-be predators or consumers. Wise are they who heed the signs. If you don't know the story of the Atala butterfly and its relationship with its host plant, by all means, go read about it.  

Eumaeus atala butterfly, at long last

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I have a new puzzle on my hands. I don't know of any places in the neighborhood with enough coontie to support the Atala Blue butterfly (Eumaeus atala), but I've got one "sleeping" on my pool deck: It's been there all morning, from 8 a.m. when I got the right profile above, to noon, when I got the left profile, below. From now on when we're on our evening strolls, I'll have to keep my eyes peeled for its only known larval host plant: coontie (Zamia floridana). It's a plant I want to have in my yard, but the seeds are poisonous, so we're a bit worried about the boys eating them. My boys don't have the millions of years of evolutionary adaptation that allow the butterfly larvae not only to tolerate the poison but to incorporate it into their tissues, rendering them unpalatable to predators. The bright, warning (aposematic) coloration advertises their toxicity, so predators know to leave them alone. Judging by the frayed wing edges and its sluggish demeanor, though, I don't think this butterfly is much longer for this world. You have to respect its warning coloration, though: Not many insects would last four hours on that pool deck, surrounded by hungry lizards. In fact, the regal darner I "rescued" from the pool back in September didn't last four minutes. For more on the coontie plant and the butterfly it supports, read this information sheet from UF/IFAS. And have a Happy Thanksgiving!