Finding Zestos Skippers on Cayo Coco Cuba

By: Marc C. Minno and Douglas M. Fernández-Hernández, on: Environment
Finding Zestos Skippers on Cayo Coco Cuba

Although once a common butterfly in the Keys, the Florida population of the Zestos Skipper (Epargyreus zestosoberon) now appears to be extinct. The Zestos Skipper is a tropical butterfly found in southern Florida and islands in the Caribbean. Different populations occur in the Bahamas, Greater Antilles, and Lesser Antilles. This skipper has only recently been reported from Cuba, and taxonomic comparisons of the Cuban population with others has not yet occurred. Lepidopterists are wondering which population is represented in Cuba? Could it possibly be the same as those in Florida? If so, then there is still hope that some of the genetic diversity of the species remains despite the Florida extinction.

In November 2013 Douglas M. Fernández-Hernández and I visited Cayo Coco, a barrier island on the north-
central coast, in search of the Zestos Skipper. Mabel López Rojas, an Insect Ecologist with the Centro de Investigaciones Ecosistemas, helped us find our way to little-known natural areas on Cayo Coco on November 18th. We were pleased to see how similar this island is to those in the Florida Keys, as it consists of eroded limestone with mangrove swamps, coastal prairies, and tropical hardwood forests.

At midday we found ourselves within a preserve called Loma del Puerto. Our driver dropped us off part way into the preserve. We walked along the dirt road, photographing plants and butterflies, passing through the tropical forest. Suddenly I heard Mabel call out “Here is a Zestos!” I ran over to her. She was pointing into the forest.

“There, on the Blackbead flower!” Sure enough it was a Zestos Skipper nectaring at the flower. I barely had time to focus the camera and snap the photo before the butterfly vanished. The three of us searched carefully in the forest and along the trail, but with no luck. The butterfly was gone, and only the photo bore witness to what I believe was a female Zestos Skipper.

The next day Douglas and I found another forest trail. We began to search along this trail, which was called Vereda de Los Marquez. The weather was fine as we began, but then turned cloudy. We suffered through a brief rain and the butterflies all went into hiding. They were soon replaced by swarms of mosquitoes, which can be fierce on Cayo Coco. Finally the sun reappeared, along with the butterflies, and the din of the mosquitoes abated. As we walked along enjoying the day’s beauty, we were astonished when another Zestos Skipper appeared! This one looked to be a male by its behavior, which was similar to some other skippers in this group. It would fly a short way down the trail, then land on the underside of a leaf about six feet above the ground. I was able to take several photographs of the butterfly, and then it disappeared into the forest.

The adult stage is almost always the easiest butterfly form to find, but we also looked for caterpillars of the Zestos Skipper. The larvae of the Zestos Skippers that used to be found in Florida fed on the leaves of a vining legume called Hammock Milkpea (Galactiastriata). This plant was common on Cayo Coco, so there were a lot of leaves to search through. Our careful picking through the graceful vines rewarded us only with some old caterpillar shelters, which may have been from other skipper species. We did not find any larvae of the Zestos Skipper.

The photographs we took of the two individuals of the Zestos Skipper were very informative. As it turns out, the Cuban population of the Zestos Skipper represents the typical race, and not that which used to exist in Florida. Much still needs to be documented about the biology of the Zestos Skipper in Cuba. If you have an adventurous spirit and want to see new and little-known butterflies, while supporting the only research now being done for their conservation, please contact Marc Minno (marc. minno@gmail.com). We are planning many field trips over the next several years, starting in the summer of 2014. Cuba is clean and safe.

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