How to Identify the Atala Butterfly

An Atala butterfly, also known as Atala hairstreak or Coontie hairstreak, is a nearly extinct butterfly that lives in South Florida and is unique for its iridescent green overlay and warning coloration.

Atala Butterfly Species Summary

Scientific NameEumaeus atala
Family NameLycaenidae
HabitatSubtropical shady hammocks
RangeSoutheastern Florida, the Bahamas, and Cuba
Host PlantsCoontie (Zamia pumila)
Butterfly DescriptionRed lower body, black upper body, black wings with white/blue spots
Caterpillar DescriptionRed with yellow spots

What are the colors of an Atala butterfly?

Atala butterfly
Atala butterfly

Adult Atala butterflies are an example of aposematic (warning) coloration. Their wingspan is 1 1/2 to 2 inches. Adult males have a soft black iridescent green overlay. Females have iridescent blue color at the base of the wings. Their abdomen is reddish. Undersides are dull black, with hindwings that contain large red spots and 3 rows of irregular gold spots.

Atala is the largest hairstreak in Southeast Florida and the most iridescent one. Males might also change colors depending on the season. Blue wings are common in summer months, and during winter they’re greener. Males also have a hair pencil at the end of their abdomen, emitting pheromones. Females are larger than males.

Why are they Called Atala Butterflies?

Cuban zoologist Felipe Poey was the first to describe this species and named it after the Native American heroine of Chateaubriand’s novel Atala.

Caterpillar Physical Description

atala butterfly caterpillar
Atala butterfly caterpillar

Atala caterpillars (larval stage) will go through 3 to 5 instar stages. The Atala larva is mostly red with two rows of yellow spots on top. During each of those, the larva will molt until it reaches the full size of about 1 inch.

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The larvae will look for a pupation place on the 10th day of the last molting. They’ll anchor to the host plant. Pupates will produce a sound called stridulation, which coordinates emergency with other pupates.

How long does an Atala butterfly live?

Egg Stage4 to 5 days
Caterpillar Stage18 days
Chrysalis Stage10 to 14 days
Butterfly Stage90 days

Habitat and range

Atala butterflies prefer the following habitats:

  • Subtropical shady hammocks
  • Open areas
  • Gardens with ornamental cycads
  • Botanical gardens abundant with coontie plants
  • Historic pine forests of south Florida
  • Bushy areas

The Atala butterfly is found in Southeastern Florida, the Bahamas, Cuba, and the Cayman Islands.

Host Plants

Atala lays its eggs on several host plants. The first one is Coontie (Zamia pumila) — a shrubby, fernlike native cycad of Florida and the Bahamas. Then there’s another coontie, Zamia integrifolia (used in butterfly gardens or as an ornamental plant), the only native cycad in North America.

This plant has developed a specific relationship with the caterpillars. The caterpillars eat the plant’s leaves and leave fecal droppings that fertilize the ground. On the other hand, the leaves have cycasin a toxic chemical that larva will ingest and store in its body throughout its life cycle. This is a similar relationship Monarch butterflies have with milkweed.

What does the Atala butterfly eat?

The Atala butterfly needs easily accessible nectar from white flowers. Some of their favorites include:

  • Florida swamps
  • Saw palmetto
  • White indigo berry
  • Beautyberry
  • Lantana
  • Wild coffee
  • Periwinkle
  • Bahama black bead
  • Florida Keys black bead
  • Florida fiddlewood
  • Spanish needle

Atala Behavior and flight

Many other butterflies from the family Lycaenidae have swift, erratic flights, but Atala is slower. They’re also relatively sedentary. Males will only fly erratically when showing off. Usually, they’ll perch on the top side of the leaves, while females will hang on underneath. Atala is mostly active in the early morning or late noon.

During the courtship display, the male will hover in front of the female, showcase its anal hair pencils and wait for the pheromones to release. Females will lay eggs in clusters of 10 to 50. What’s more, females are friendly with each other and often lay eggs together on the same plant.

Common Predators

Birds, lizards, and other animals prey on larvae, pupae, and adult butterflies. However, this butterfly uses aposematic coloration — bright colors, to show it is poisonous. They’re quite secure in their protective toxin, so they’re not scared easily and don’t have many natural predators.

Are Atala Butterflies Poisonous?

Atala butterfly caterpillars feed on the poisonous coontie cycad. This makes the Atala butterfly poisonous as well.

Are Atala Butterflies Endangered?

Unfortunately, Eumaeus atala is ranked as endangered by the state of Florida. It has a Nature Conservancy rank of T3, which means it’s very rare or only found locally in a restricted range.

Furthermore, Florida lists Atala as a “species of greatest conservation need.” Luckily, its numbers have recently increased, and it expanded its range from the southeastern coast of Florida to areas near the West coast.

How to Attract Atala Butterflies?

Plant Coontie cycads and nectar plants in your yard to attract Atala butterflies. These butterflies are often attracted to tiny white flowers.

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