The blue butterfly of Miami, one of the scarcest insects in the United States. and that in recent decades has seen its habitat reduced, is fighting to survive helped by scientists from the Museum of Natural History of Florida.
“It’s definitely considered one of the rarest because it’s only found in a very small area of the country and it’s also been thought that it went extinct more than once,” biologist Sarah Steele told Efe.
The expert said that although it seems a little difficult to identify a single insect that is considered the “scarcest” in the country, this lepidopteran has merits for that.
According to the museum, in 1999, when they were believed to be extinct, a remnant population of less than 100 butterflies was discovered in the Florida Keys.
Since then, the museum eventually seeks to rescue the species from the threat of disappearance through a program to establish a colony of the blue butterfly of Miami in captivity, in which Steele works as the main field researcher.
Steele explained that these captive breeding sites serve for now to “conduct research in order to learn more about the butterfly and the factors that could increase its chances of success in reintroduction.”
The butterfly, which in 2012 was included in the list of threatened species of the Federal Service of Fish and Wildlife (USFWS, in English), survives for now only in the Florida Keys, in the extreme south of the country.
Until this area the specialist moved after the passage of Hurricane Irma, last September 10, with the fear that the cyclone would have given the final blow to the butterfly and its habitat.
However, she and her team found eggs, larvae and adult butterflies of the only animal species named after Miami.
“We are still working to complete the population surveys, but since our initial evaluation it does not appear that the blue butterfly of Miami or its habitat has been severely affected by Hurricane Irma,” Steele said.
This species, whose scientific name is Cyclargus thomasi bethunebakeri, however, faces many other threats to survive.
Although its population “seems stable,” the biologist recalled that this butterfly is listed as “critically endangered and remains susceptible to extreme events such as hurricanes.”
Steele indicated that the main reason for the gradual disappearance of this lepidopteran is the loss of habitat and fragmentation due to human development.
He explained that the populations of the blue butterfly of Miami, which lives in the berms of the beach, began to disappear in the decades of the 1980s and 1990s, “which is correlated with the development boom in South Florida.”
Faced with threats, which also include mosquito insecticides and invasive species, the Florida Museum of Natural History and the USFWS are advancing the breeding program.
The initiative involves from the raising of the butterflies until the accomplishment of extensive field tests, that include liberation of larvae and adult butterflies in the Keys of Florida and observe how they survive, some of them caged.
Although researchers are optimistic about the prospects of this butterfly, Steele said it is “too early” to say whether they will succeed in preventing its extinction.
For now, the team is in an initial stage in which seeks to restore the presence of this butterfly in places where they used to live.
This insect was common throughout south and central Florida, but currently now only inhabits the archipelago of the Florida Keys, specifically on a few small islands of Key West and the Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge.
Irma, a Category 4 hurricane, of a scale of 5, touched land only 64 kilometers east of the islands where the insect lives, a circumstance that saved it “from the worst of the storm”, as Steele points out.
The biologist hopes that success stories in the recovery of other species of endangered butterflies will be repeated with the blue of Miami.
According to Steele, the butterfly is just one of the many pollinators that are rapidly declining throughout the country and said it is vital to restore their populations taking into account their importance for ecosystems.