Atala butterflies are found in the southern tip of Florida. Once considered threatened, Atala butterflies have rebounded, thanks to the efforts of home gardeners and enthusiasts who planted coontie and raised Atala butterflies to release back into their yards. The have multiplied to the extent that, in some nurseries that sell Coontie plants from West Palm Beach south to the tip of Florida, they have become a pest.
Atala butterflies lay eggs on Coontie plants. In the wild, they choose Zamia pumila as their host.
Coontie grows wild in Florida and is a popular garden plant from gardening zone 8a to the tip of Florida.
It grows well in full sun as well as heavy shade. Dry sandy soil is suitable as this is a drought-tolerant plant.
Several species of Zamia are planted by gardeners and landscape professionals in these zones.
Atala eggs are somewhat unusual. A close look reveals spikes sticking up from each egg. These spikes are scales that stuck to the eggs as the adult butterfly laid her eggs.
Eggs are laid on clusters on any part of the plant. Leaves, stems, base, and flower/seed cones are often decorated with clusters of these eggs.
Eggs may take two weeks to hatch. If you collect eggs to raise indoors, be patient!
In captivity, caterpillars will eat several other Zamia species of plants.
Young Atala caterpillars grow well on soft tender leaves. Old leaves may be too tough for them to eat.
Caterpillars are gregarious; they stay in a group on the plant.
Bright orange and yellow, these caterpillars cannot help but command attention. The are often overlooked as they often stay underneath leaves as they eat.
Young caterpillars often eat the outer layer of a leaf, leaving the middle layer intact.
Because Atalas are hairstreak butterflies, they pupate in a crescent (rather than J) shape. Because they are gregarious as caterpillars, they often pupate close together.
Unlike other chrysalises, as they pupate (shed their cuticle), they do not attach themselves with a cremaster. They stay attached to the leaf only by their silk girdle. They swing free in the wind.
The day before they emerge, their wings will begin to show through the chrysalis.
A few days after emerging, they pair and their life cycle continues.