Insect Profile: The Schaus Swallowtail

By Irus Braverman.

The following text is taken from the book Wild Life: The Institution of Nature by Irus Braverman, © 2015 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Published by Stanford University Press. Used here with the permission of the publisher.

The Schaus swallowtail (Heraclides aristodemus ponceanus) is a large brown and yellow butterfly endemic to southern Florida. Additional subspecies occur in the Bahamas, Hispaniola, and Cuba. The butterfly is restricted to intact tropical hardwood hammocks and their associated margins.

In 1973, the Schaus swallowtail was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and in 1984, the butterfly’s status was upgraded to endangered,1 making it the only one of more than 573 swallowtail butterfly species to be listed as endangered.2 So widespread in the early 1900s that they were described as bobbing along South Florida’s breezes by the hundreds, the Schaus swallowtails succumbed to habitat destruction and anti-mosquito insecticides sprayed in the region.3 In a serendipitous occurrence, just two months before Hurricane Andrew swept through in 1992, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) granted the University of Florida permission to remove one hundred Schaus swallowtail eggs to serve as the starter nucleus of a large-scale captive propagation program. Following the destruction wrought by the hurricane, the USFWS committed major funding to continue the field surveys and the captive propagation program, as well as to implement experimental reintroductions of the species within protected habitat areas.4

This was not the end of the story for the Schaus Swallowtail. In tomorrow’s installment, author Irus Bravermen will provide an excerpt from her book, Wild Life: The Institution of Nature (Stanford University Press, 2015), in which she recounts her conversation with Thomas Emmel who directed the breeding and reintroduction program. Their in-depth discussions reveal the bureaucratic challenges of trying to save an endangered species.


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