The state butterfly has been spotted here, well north of its normal range.
Naturalist Rod Gasche of Carrabelle who spotted the butterfly said it is the first time he has observed the species here in 27 years of nature watching.
The zebra longwing was declared Florida’s state butterfly in 1996 but rarely ventures into the Panhandle.
A denizen of tropical hammocks, moist forests and fields, the normal range of the black and yellow beauty is South America north through Central America, West Indies, and Mexico, to South Texas and peninsular Florida. It has been observed in New Mexico, Nebraska, and South Carolina on rare occasions.
According to the webpage for the Sarasota chapter of the North American Butterfly Association, this has been a bumper year for zebra longwings which may explain why one has wandered so far from home.
“My yard is currently over-run with zebra longwings – have never had so many at one time!” one commenter wrote. “Toward evening, they gather en masse with folded wings on the bare hanging branches of the weeping bottlebrush tree in my backyard. They hang there until I can’t see them in the dark and by morning, they are gone. This has been happening every evening for the last several weeks.”
Zebras are unusual because they eat pollen, a characteristic of primitive butterfly species. Because of their high protein diet, they are long-lived for a butterfly or moth, reaching six months of age, half of that spent as a cocoon or caterpillar.
Zebras roost in groups of up to 70 at night and return to the same roost every evening. The males can detect a female in her cocoon and wait patiently for her to emerge and mate.
When the emergence is near, a large group of hopeful suitors will congregate around the chrysalis. Over time, weaker males are chased away until only two remain clinging to the sleeping beauty. When the emergence begins, they fight for her favors and the stronger mates with her before she takes her first flight and then deposits a repellant chemical on her abdomen to discourage other males and protect his genetic material.
She lays five to 15 eggs on leaf buds or leaves of a passionflower vine. After emerging, the caterpillars feed at night on the plant.
Adults gather flower nectar and pollen along a set foraging route or "trap-line.” Favorite plants include lantana and shepherd's needle.
While this butterfly is not considered imperiled, threats to its habitat are increasing due to development, especially in the Southern United States and Mexico.