BISCAYNE NATIONAL PARK, Fla. (AP) — Biologists released six rare Schaus swallowtail butterflies into Biscayne National Park on Monday in the hopes of repopulating a species that was all but extinct just two years ago.
In 2012, federal park rangers found only four of the colorful insects on Elliott Key, part of the largely marine park near Miami.
The Schaus swallowtail is a large yellow butterfly with a stained-glass pattern on its lower wings and up to a 5-inch wingspan. It was once found from the Middle Keys north through Miami, but now it is limited to northern Key Largo and Biscayne National Park.
It was "on the brink of extinction" said Jaret Daniels, a biologist at the Florida Museum of Natural History, who was part of a team that released the colorful insects on the island. The species has been struggling for several years, and was the first insect to be placed on the U.S. Endangered Species list. It found its way to a postage stamp in 1996.
Then, "it really crashed in the population numbers," and officials ordered an emergency response, Daniels said. Scientists collected 100 eggs in 2013, and reared butterflies in the lab.
Monday's release brought to 45 the number released to repopulate the species. The butterflies were gently placed on fingertips to be launched - although a couple of the insects seemed happy to stay perched on researchers' hands until given a very gentle nudge to flutter away.
Unlike other butterflies, the Schaus swallowtail has only one generation a year and is susceptible to dry weather conditions, along with threats from pesticides and loss of habitat.
Park service officials are working to restore some of the insect's habitat by removing invasive, non-native plant species on the island and replacing those plants with lime and torchwood - plants that larvae can munch on while growing into adulthood.
With the earlier releases, scientists say they are already seeing some growth in the population. This year, they have tallied 150 Schaus swallowtail butterflies on Elliott Key
"We hope 2015 will be a banner year for this butterfly," Daniels said. "We have several years to go, but the good thing is, we're on the road back to recovery."