The fate of an endangered butterfly species in the Florida Keys may rest on the only female Schaus swallowtail to be spotted in a year, and a handful of caterpillars captured in Biscayne National Park.
University of Florida researchers are hoping their specialized breeding program can bring the species back from the brink of extinction -- for the second time.
The university began the Schaus swallowtail breeding program in 1992 after Hurricane Andrew wiped out much of the species' tropical hardwood habitat.
Thousands of butterflies were released into the wild over the next four years, but the population dropped again over the next two decades as their habitat continued to decrease through a series of droughts.
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University researchers, volunteers, and state and federal wildlife agencies conducted surveys and found only four of the butterflies in the wild last year. UF was issued an emergency permit last year by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service so researchers could collect eggs.
One technician netted a female Schaus swallowtail in Biscayne National Park on Elliott Key, the only such find. Field researchers collected a single egg, which she laid May 23 before being released the next day.
Mark Salvato, a biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service called the find "a breakthrough." The larva that hatched was taken to Gainesville last week, where it will join several other Schaus swallowtail larvae collected from the Keys.
“This single female could help bring the Schaus back from the brink,” said Jaret Daniels, professor in UF’s Department of Entomology and Nematology and associate curator of lepidoptera at UF’s Florida Museum of Natural History.