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Largest butterfly in Western Hemisphere needs help to avoid extinction.

30/11/2006 00:00:00

More stories about butterflies and moths

August 2007. The Homerus swallowtail, found only in two areas of Jamaica, is the Western Hemisphere’s largest butterfly, but scientists say that its numbers are so small that conservation and captive breeding efforts are needed to save the insect.
Entomology professor Tom Emmel, left, and graduate student Matt Lehnert admire a preserved specimen of the Homerus swallowtail butterfly at the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity on UF’s main campus in Gainesville. The largest butterfly in the Western hemisphere, the Homerus is endangered and found only in two parts of Jamaica. Lehnert recently published the first study estimating the size of the population in western Jamaica, about 50 adults.
A University of Florida study was the first to estimate the population found in western Jamaica’s remote ‘Cockpit Country.’ Author Matt Lehnert, a graduate student at the University found about 50 adults in the area. The good news is the population was larger than expected, according to Tom Emmel, a UF entomology professor who has helped rescue the endangered Schaus swallowtail and Miami blue butterflies native to Florida.

‘From a conservation standpoint, it shows there’s more than one viable population left for this magnificent swallowtail,’ said Emmel, who directs UF’s McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity at the Florida Museum of Natural History.
But the population isn’t large enough to withstand illegal collection or rampant development, he said.

Worlds largest butterfly
With a 6-inch wingspan, only a few butterflies in the world are bigger. The largest is Papua New Guinea’s Queen Alexandra’s birdwing, which has a 14-inch wingspan.
The Homerus is black with yellow bands and red and blue spots. It once inhabited seven of Jamaica’s 13 provinces, but as land was cleared for coffee plantations and farmland it disappeared from most.

Few people live in the rugged Cockpit Country, but deforestation and bauxite mining could destroy the butterfly’s habitat, said Lehnert. Jamaica adopted the butterfly as a symbol of its only national park, established partly to protect the other Homerus population on the island’s east side, Emmel said. The eastern population, which has fewer than 50 adults, is more accessible and more widely studied. Emmel believes Cockpit Country should house a second national park.

‘We now know of several areas near Matt’s concentration area worth proposing as conservation areas,’ Emmel said. ‘Cockpit Country has other unique species, too, including a parrot and several plants.’

Cockpit Country was named for its rugged terrain, created by innumerable sinkholes. The name refers to the similarity between the sinkholes and cockfighting pits.
Lehnert conducted the study by netting adult butterflies, marking and logging the insects, then using statistical methods to estimate the total population.

Captive breeding
Emmel said a captive breeding program is the ultimate goal. Captive breeding programs should be seriously considered, said Eric Garraway, a faculty member with the University of the West Indies at Mona, Jamaica. Like Emmel, Garraway is one of the world’s leading Homerus swallowtail experts.

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