The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has issued an emergency authorization for the collection and captive rearing of Schaus swallowtail butterflies in an effort to save the “endangered” species from extinction.

As a result of that authorization on June 8 — within two days after surveyors observed only three to five Schaus swallowtail butterflies at Biscayne National Park during their current flight season — the USFWS, National Park Service, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the University of Florida initiated an on-going emergency action to collect up to four female Schaus Swallowtail butterflies within BNP. The surveys are continuing.

Biological technicians count the endangered butterfly at Biscayne National Park near Miami each year and this year’s tally plummeted to five from 41 in 2011. “We’ve only confirmed three of the five butterflies sighted this year and only one of those counted this year was a female,” said Dr. Jaret Daniels, lead project researcher for the University of Florida.

The emergency authorization allows the University of Florida crew to capture up to four female butterflies and begin a propagation project to repopulate the species in Biscayne National Park.

Daniels said, “Intervention doesn’t guarantee survival, but it does offer hope and puts us into a better position to save this species.”

Once collected, females will be temporarily confined in a mesh cage on site in natural habitat, where they will hopefully lay eggs on host plants. New eggs will be removed daily. Females will only be confined for up to four days and then released.

“National Parks like Biscayne protect entire ecosystems for the benefit of all species,” said Mark Lewis, Biscayne National Park Superintendent. “Right now, with our partners in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission and the University of Florida, we must focus on a fragile but important part of the ecosystem — the Schaus swallowtail — to ensure it doesn’t disappear from the planet.”

As pollinators, butterflies are important members of south Florida ecosystem. They’re also good indicators of the ecological quality of a habitat, as they are important components of the food chain, particularly as larvae (caterpillars).

The Schaus swallowtail was initially listed under the Endangered Species Act as “Threatened” in 1976 and then “Endangered” in 1984. During the 2011 survey, there were 41 total — 35 in BNP (mostly on Elliott Key) and six on north Key Largo. Recovery of the Schaus swallowtail is hindered by insecticide use, habitat destruction, droughts, hurricanes, and illegal collection.

“We’re encouraging concerned citizens to help us save this species by submitting new scientific and commercial information and data related to the status of the Schaus swallowtail butterfly throughout its range in south Florida,” said Larry Williams, Field Supervisor of the South Florida Ecological Services Office.

Logo courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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