Largest butterfly in Western Hemisphere needs help to avoid extinction

Aug 09, 2007

The Homerus swallowtail is the Western Hemisphere’s largest butterfly, but University of Florida researchers say its numbers are so small that conservation and captive breeding efforts are needed to save the insect, found only in two parts of Jamaica.

A UF study published last month in The Journal of Insect Conservation was the first to estimate the population found in western Jamaica’s remote “Cockpit Country.” Author Matt Lehnert, a graduate student with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, found about 50 adults in the area.

The good news is the population was larger than expected, said Tom Emmel, a UF entomology professor who has helped rescue the endangered Schaus swallowtail and Miami blue butterflies native to Florida. Emmel is Lehnert’s graduate adviser.

“From a conservation standpoint, it shows there’s more than one viable population left for this magnificent swallowtail,” said Emmel, who directs UF’s McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

But the population isn’t large enough to withstand illegal collection or rampant development, he said.

With a 6-inch wingspan, only a few butterflies in the world are bigger. The largest is Papua New Guinea’s Queen Alexandra’s birdwing, which has a 14-inch wingspan.

The Homerus is black with yellow bands and red and blue spots. It once inhabited seven of Jamaica’s 13 provinces, but as land was cleared for coffee plantations and farmland it disappeared from most.

Few people live in the rugged Cockpit Country, but deforestation and bauxite mining could destroy the butterfly’s habitat, said Lehnert, now pursuing a doctorate in entomology at UF.

Jamaica adopted the butterfly as a symbol of its only national park, established partly to protect its other Homerus population, on the island’s east side, Emmel said. The eastern population, which has fewer than 50 adults, is more accessible and more widely studied. Emmel believes Cockpit Country should house a second national park.

“We now know of several areas near Matt’s concentration area worth proposing as conservation areas,” Emmel said. “Cockpit Country has other unique species, too, including a parrot and several plants.”

Cockpit Country was named for its rugged terrain, created by innumerable sinkholes. The name refers to the similarity between the sinkholes and cockfighting pits.

Lehnert conducted the study by netting adult butterflies, marking and logging the insects, then using statistical methods to estimate the total population.

He may pursue postdoctoral work at the University of the West Indies at Mona, Jamaica, to help develop a captive breeding program for the butterfly.

In his doctoral research, Lehnert’s studying genetic differences between Florida tiger swallowtail populations. The results could help researchers decide whether crossbreeding Homerus swallowtails from the two Jamaican populations would be successful.

Emmel said a captive breeding program is the ultimate goal.

Captive breeding programs should be seriously considered, said Eric Garraway, a faculty member with the University of the West Indies at Mona, Jamaica. Like Emmel, Garraway is one of the world’s leading Homerus swallowtail experts.

“When you have a species like this, which is really a giant and under a lot of pressure, we often need to have some direct intervention outside of the ordinary management of the habitat,” Garraway said.

Public interest in saving the Homerus could pave the way for broader conservation efforts on the island, he said.

“People love butterflies—it’s a perfect flagship species,” he said. “We can preserve it not just for itself but we can use it to conserve a lot, lot more, probably—lots of other species, as well as the forest itself.”

Source: University of Florida

Explore further: Bulletproof nuclei? Stem cells exhibit unusual absorption property

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Android gains in US, basic phones almost extinct

5 hours ago

The Google Android platform grabbed the majority of mobile phones in the US market in early 2014, as consumers all but abandoned non-smartphone handsets, a survey showed Friday.

SpaceX launches supplies to space station (Update)

5 hours ago

The SpaceX company returned to orbit Friday, launching fresh supplies to the International Space Station after more than a month's delay and setting the stage for urgent spacewalking repairs.

Recommended for you

Plants with dormant seeds give rise to more species

Apr 18, 2014

Seeds that sprout as soon as they're planted may be good news for a garden. But wild plants need to be more careful. In the wild, a plant whose seeds sprouted at the first warm spell or rainy day would risk disaster. More ...

Researchers successfully clone adult human stem cells

Apr 18, 2014

(Phys.org) —An international team of researchers, led by Robert Lanza, of Advanced Cell Technology, has announced that they have performed the first successful cloning of adult human skin cells into stem ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Biologists help solve fungi mysteries

(Phys.org) —A new genetic analysis revealing the previously unknown biodiversity and distribution of thousands of fungi in North America might also reveal a previously underappreciated contributor to climate ...

Poll: Big Bang a big question for most Americans

Few Americans question that smoking causes cancer. But they have more skepticism than confidence in global warming, the age of the Earth and evolution and have the most trouble believing a Big Bang created the universe 13.8 ...

Making graphene in your kitchen

Graphene has been touted as a wonder material—the world's thinnest substance, but super-strong. Now scientists say it is so easy to make you could produce some in your kitchen.