the rarest butterfly versus the most destructive hurricane -- 5/16/24

Today's encore selection -- from The Last Butterflies by Nick Haddad. The rarest butterfly of them all, and the most intense Atlantic hurricane to make landfall in recorded history:

Miami was not always the sprawling coastal metropolis it is today. Until 1900, the area harbored a few hundred to a few thousand people. ... Increased settle­ment and the onset of development coincided with the discov­ery of one of the area's native butterflies, the Schaus' Swallowtail (Heraclides aristodemus ponceanus). Based on an individual butterfly collected in 1898, entomologist William Schaus pub­lished an article in 1911 to announce the subspecies' discovery. The Schaus' Swallowtail is large, similar in size to a Monarch. Yellow wing bands stand out against a black background. ...

"Shortly after its discovery, the Schaus' Swallowtail was nearly lost. In the early 1920s, development drove the Schaus' Swallowtail out of Miami. ... Loss on the mainland equated with extinction.

"The Schaus' Swallowtail then resurrected for the first time.

"Soon after its disappearance from the mainland, it resurfaced in the Florida Keys. In the decade that followed its discovery in Key Largo ... and Lower Matecumbe Key, thirty miles to the west.

Once abundant in the greater Miami area and the Florida Keys, these endangered butterflies, Schaus' Swallowtail,
are now limited primarily to Biscayne National Park.

"Following its rediscovery, disaster struck again. In 1935, a natural disturbance, rather than a human-caused one, pounded the Schaus' Swallowtail's habitat. The 1935 Labor Day Hurri­cane, still the most intense Atlantic hurricane to make landfall in recorded history, struck at the western edge of the butterfly's range, devastating small Lower Matecumbe Key. Photos of the island post-hurricane show it flattened, including an iconic photo of the Overseas Railroad train blown and toppled off its tracks.

"In 1940, Florence Grimshawe rang the Schaus' Swallowtail's death knell. ... Her article 'Place of Sorrow: The World's Rarest But­terfly' foretold my inclusion of the Schaus' Swallowtail in this book. She wrote, 'Matecurnbe, in the language of the long­vanished Catoosa Indians, means "the place of sorrow."' To the lepidopterist, this name of this Key, which is as rich in legend and mystery as the great fastness of the Everglades, may well have a special meaning--the sorrow of the extinction of a spe­cies. After describing her encounters with the butterfly, Grim­shawe concluded: '[The Schaus' Swallowtail] made its last stand, when the sand dune and beautiful hammock melted away under the fury of hurricane and tidal wave.'''

[It reappeared again, but current population estimates range between only 800 and 1,200 butterflies].




Nick Haddad


The Last Butterflies


Princeton University Press


144, 147-148
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