The Upper Keys is playing a role in an effort by the National Park Service to bolster the population of the federally protected Schaus swallowtail butterfly on Biscayne National Park’s Elliott Key.
The 4-year-old restoration project has three simple goals: remove invasive species from the island, plant natives such as torchwood and wild lime and hope for a bump in the numbers of the endangered butterfly.
The butterfly, discovered in 1911 by the late Miami physician William Schaus, is native to South Florida with subspecies of the butterfly found in the Bahamas and Cuba. While it once flourished in the Florida Keys before homes dotted the island chain, scientists say only a few hundred are still in existence today. It was once found in the tropical hardwood hammocks from South Miami to Lower Matecumbe Key, but recent sightings have them inhabiting only Elliot Key and north Key Largo.
Jaeson Clayborn, a graduate student at Florida International University, has been with the NPS project since its inception.
“I have a real interest in this project,” he said. “It’s important that these butterflies flourish once again.”
He visits Elliott Key twice a week with a crew from Biscayne National Park. They plant native trees and conduct field tests on the island.
Many of the seeds used in the project originate from Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park in Key Largo. Longtime Upper Keys resident Susan Kolterman, a bartender at Snapper’s Restaurant, volunteers her time conducting collection efforts for the state park.
“We collect seeds and seedlings,” Kolterman said.
Following each trip, she mails them to a nursery on the mainland where they further mature before being transferred to Elliott Key.
Clayborn said in the project’s initial year, only 20 natives were planted on the island. But that number, four years later, is around 3,000 and counting.
The butterfly prefers shady hardwood hammocks as most shy away from direct sunlight. They are also known to fly up to 6 miles in one day and, before its significant population decline, would travel up and down the Keys. Its typical flight season is May and June.
The University of Florida has also played a role in the project. Researchers, for years, have captured and bred the butterfly before re-releasing them back out into its Elliott Key and North Key Largo homes.
Clayborn hopes that within five to 10 years data will show a resurgence in the butterfly. But for now, he said it’s hard to tell.
A similar project, involving Adams Key, is also in the works.