South Florida has just gained a new wildlife species, one that had been hiding in plain sight in neighborhoods from Homestead to southern Palm Beach County.
Say hello to the pink-spot sulphur butterfly. Like a winged member of the witness protection program, the butterfly had been living incognito in South Florida because of its superficial resemblance to two other species.
The pink-spot’s presence in South Florida was confirmed in the past two weeks, thanks to a scientist’s patience in examining hundreds of thousands of specimens, a Facebook post to the butterfly community and a West Boca butterfly gardener who likes to photograph visiting pollinators.
“All we ever hear about Florida is endangered species, or you can’t find this one, don’t know what happened to that one,” said Andrew Warren, senior collections manager for the University of Florida’s McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity. “And here’s this happy case where it’s been here basically right under our nose.”
Warren found evidence of the butterfly’s possible presence in South Florida earlier this year while cataloging specimens for the museum’s collections. This is not a small task. The collections consist of 5 to 8 million specimens, and the sulphur family occupied hundreds of drawers and amounted to hundreds of thousands of samples.
While going through dried butterflies collected in South Florida, he found five unidentified specimens of the pink-spot sulphur, previously thought to live only in Cuba and some islands of the Bahamas. The specimens, taken between 1951 and 1985, had been intermixed with a bunch of samples of a similar species.
The pink-spot sulphur, known among specialists as Aphrissa neleis, is distinguished by pink spots near the base of its wings. And Warren’s find provided the first evidence it had lived in South Florida, although it didn’t prove it was still here.
He wrote up his discovery for the March issue of News of the Lepidopterists’ Society. But none of the butterfly gardeners and butterfly watchers in South Florida saw it.
However, when Warren mentioned his discovery to Alana Edwards, president of the Atala chapter of the North American Butterfly Association, based in Palm Beach County, she spread the word on Facebook and through emails. Go through your photos, she said, and let’s find out if the pink-spot sulphur still exists in Florida.
The post caught the eye of E.J. Haas, who cultivates a butterfly garden in her backyard on Lyons Road in West Boca. She sent Edwards photos and videos taken in July of what she had thought was either a cloudless sulphur or a statira sulphur. Edwards forwarded them to the scientist, and the response came back in less than two hours.
“Oh yes! Most definitely A. neleis!!!!!!” Warren wrote. “So, in fact, they are a current breeding resident- these photos confirm it!!! WOW! Many thanks, and congratulations on your great and extremely important photos!”
Other sightings also came in. Buck and Linda Cooper and Mary Ann Friedman turned in photos taken in 2007 in Homestead that turned out to be pink-spots. Charles Weber discovered he had taken a couple shots of them in 2006 at Flamingo Gardens and Wildlife Sanctuary in Davie.
“It was extremely gratifying when the photos started coming in,” Warren said.
It may turn out that the species is pretty common in South Florida, he said, despite having gone unnoticed for so long.
A lot remains unknown – the host plant for caterpillars, its geographical range – but Warren expects to start working on these mysteries. He plans to come down to South Florida to learn more, starting in the neighborhoods in which the butterfly has been photographed.
“It’s just extremely surprising that they have been living here all along,” he said.
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