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Imperiled Butterflies

Imperiled Butterflies of South Florida

with Frank Ridgley DVM, Zoo/Wildlife Veterinarian for Zoo Miami's Conservation & Research Department

 A federally endangered Bartram's hairstreak butterfly

A federally endangered Bartram's hairstreak
 

Nearly one third of the butterfly species that are native to South Florida are considered imperiled. This is more than any other region in the country. In the last couple decades we have seen the extinction of a couple species and several more teeter on the brink. 

Zoo Miami has a long history of involvement in the conservation of imperied butterfly species through educational exhibits, habitat population surveys, reintroduction efforts, captive rearing, butterfly gardens, habitat restoration and incoporating host plants into landscaping. 

 

imperiled female Florida duskywing butterfly

An imperiled female Florida duskywing
 

To help provide increased capacity to our collaborative butterfly conservation partnerships, Zoo Miami has dedicated staff to butterfly rearing and has established a laboratory that is dedicated to Lepidoptera research and conservation efforts known as the Butterfly Bunker. This laboratory space is for our staff and collaborators to have a dedicated facility in South Florida that is working towards priorities set forth by the Imperiled Butterflies Working Group to aid in the recovery of multiple imperiled butterfly species. 

 

The Butterfly Bunker Laboratory

 

 

This facility's origins go back to the 1940's when the property where Zoo Miami currently resides used to be part of the Richmond Naval Air Base and the bunker was likely used to store military munitions. The base went through several phases of decomission after the loss of its blimp hangers in a hurricane and the end of WWII until it was turned over to Miami-Dade County for conversion into a park in the mid 1970's. Built to withstand bombing and severe hurricanes, this bunker survived unphased from a direct eyewall hit of Catergory 5 Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Largely neglected after the base reduced activity, it became consumed with invasive plants and decades worth of dumped materials around its perimeter. It had became a problematic area surrounded by some of the most important critically endangered pine rockland habitat left in Florida. 

 

bunker in 2013 littered with decades of debrisĀ and consumed with invasive plants

The bunker in 2013 littered with decades of debris and consumed with invasive plants such as Indian rosewood, Brazilian pepper and Burmareed.
 

In 2013, Zoo Miami staff had begun an enhancement program of the adjacent lake by removing invasive plants along its shorelines to make the lake more productive for native wildlife and remove invasive plant seed sources for the surrounding pine rockland. In collaboration with Miami-Dade County Natural Areas Management and the Environmentally Endangered Lands Program, Zoo Miami staff decided to try and extend their efforts by taking on the invasive removal efforts around the neglected bunker.  After about a year of periodic chainsawing and machete work the invasives were removed.  Volunteers from HandsOn Miami helped haul away the cut and dried plant material. They also helped remove the dumped debris, recycling what could, and ended up hauling away many truck loads of materials that dated back many decades.

 

HandsOn Miami volunteer helping remove a piece of Indian rosewood

HandsOn Miami volunteer helping remove a piece of Indian rosewood
 
 

Bunker before invasive plant removal.Bunker after invasive plant removal

Bunker before invasive plant removalBunker after invasive plant removal
Bunker before and after invasive plant removal.
 

The area was left to settle so an inventory of any imperiled natives that might still be present could be done. During the debris removal it was discovered that the area around the bunker had been previously excavated and it no longer had the native sandy rocky substrate of pine rockland. It appeared that marl/peat soil had been brought in to cover the bunker and surrounding site. This more nutrient rich soil and disturbance likely gave the invasives an advantage to take over the area. 

Zoo Miami had been advancing their butterfly conservation program and future goals around this same time of clearing. Not wanting the invasives to gain a foothold again it was decided to plant the reclaimed area with pine rockland imperiled butterfly host plants among the few remaining native plants to help prevent the return of the invasives and provide the imperiled species in the surrounding pinelands more resources. Zoo Miami, BioTECH at Richmond, and the Florida Museum of Natural History helped provide hundreds of coontie, locustberry and pineland croton that were planted around the bunker.

volunteers planting coontie, locustberry and pineland croton around the bunker

coontie, locustberry and pineland croton planted around the bunker

coontie, locustberry and pineland croton planted around the bunker

 

The longer term goals of Zoo Miami's imperiled butterfly program was to establish captive assuranace colonies of some of the regional imperiled butterfly species for possible future reintroductions/population augmentation and conduct research to fill in some of the life history knowledge gaps. But, it is difficult to have shade houses and lightweight structures in Miami-Dade County due to the frequent tropical storms, hurricanes, and stringent building codes. We needed a hurricane resistant structure that these colonies could be safely housed in and the answer lied right in front of us. 

The bunker was an underutilized space that was infrequently used for storage. The vast majority of the materials inside the bunker were outdated or degraded. Volunteers from HandsOn Miami helped us out again and two dump trucks full of materials and over 70 years worth of dust and debris were removed from inside the bunker.

A loaded dump truck after removing dirt and debris from inside the bunker

The empty bunker before it was cleaned and repaired

 

The inside was then power washed, concrete repaired, and the whole inside was coated in an epoxy coating to provide a cleanable non-porous surface. 

The bunker after it was cleaned, repaired and freshly painted.

 

Since the bunker is surrounded by such an important habitat, the critically endangered pine rocklands, we did not want to cause any disturbance or damage by running utilities out to the site. To get power for lighting the inside, we installed wind turbines to catch the breeze coming off of the lake and Florida Power and Light donated sixteen solar panels. 

Wind turbines and solar panels providing power to the bunker laboratory.

 

To provide ventilation to the inside, the old broken off ventilation stack was replaced with a new PVC stack and a large volume solar powered vent fan system was installed on top of the bunker.

New PVC stack and a large volume solar powered vent fan system installed on top of the bunker

 

Mike Fesmire donated his time and expertise to frame in and seal the entrance to provide some biosecurity.

Newly sealed entrance of the bunker with a storm door

 

The solar panels also formed a perfect rainwater collection platform. We then installed a filtration and storage system to provide a water source for inside to maintain host plants and cuttings. 

Rainwater collection system for the bunker

 

Lastly, the Florida Museum of Natural History and the Disney Conservation Fund provided rearing materials and monitoring equipment. Finally, the Butterfly Bunker laboratory was born!

Butterfly Bunker laboratory set up with lights and various sized mesh enclosures for rearing butterflies.

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