You would think a butterfly as big as a man's hand would be easy to spot. • Dressed in head-to-toe mesh suits to ward off mosquitoes, biologists spent this summer scouring the thick woods of little Elliott Key, south of Miami, for any sign of the endangered Schaus swallowtail butterfly. During the peak butterfly season they had spotted just four, only one a female, prompting alarmed federal officials to approve catching more females to launch an emergency captive breeding program. • But they didn't find any. No females. No males, either.
The Schaus swallowtail, its chocolate brown wings striped in yellow with a dash of blue, has been threatened with extinction for more than three decades. A few years ago federal officials were hailing its comeback, but now the insect again appears to be on its last hairy legs.
"It doesn't look too hopeful," said Thomas Emmel, a retired University of Florida professor who has spent two decades and his own money trying to save the Schaus from extinction.
Emmel and other butterfly experts have their fingers crossed that there are butterfly pupae hidden among the underbrush at Biscayne National Park that have yet to emerge, and a few female Schaus swallowtails will again be fluttering among the torchwood and wild lime trees next spring.
"Otherwise," he said, "I think it's gone."
The disappearance would mean more than just the loss of a key distributor of plant pollen. It would also mean that taxpayers wasted tens of thousands of dollars trying to save this bit of wild beauty from disappearing.
"The government owned this bug, and they dropped the ball," said Dennis Olle, vice president of conservation for the Miami Blue chapter of the North American Butterfly Association. However, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Ken Warren pointed out that federal funding paid for the surveys that discovered the recent population decline.
The loss of the Schaus swallowtail would also mean no one would ever again see what Jaret Daniels, an assistant professor at the University of Florida and curator of the butterfly collection at the Florida Museum of Natural History, says is "arguably the most charismatic butterfly in Florida."
Such a stunning creature caught the attention of William Schaus while the doctor was visiting Miami to treat yellow fever victims in 1911, and he wrote up the first scientific description. Back then, hundreds of them bobbed along with every breeze blowing through South Florida's wilderness.
The Schaus swallowtail has the rare ability to stop suddenly in midair and then fly backward to flee from birds, lizards and other predators. But it could not avoid the clouds of insecticide that were soon being sprayed around South Florida to quell bloodthirsty mosquitoes. Nor could it cope with the loss of habitat from development as Florida's human population swelled.
Originally classified as threatened in 1976, its became a full-fledged endangered species in 1984. Emmel got permission from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to capture some females to launch a captive breeding program at the Gainesville museum. The setup cost more than $50,000, some of it from the federal government, he said.
He scooped up his share in early 1992. Then in August, Hurricane Andrew nearly wiped out the wild population. That meant the only future the butterfly had depended on Emmel and Daniels' success with captive breeding.
The breeding went well, and by 1995 they had thousands to release. By 1997 there were 13 new wild colonies, including one in Miami, Emmel said. But the $12,000 a year for continuing the captive breeding and regular monitoring dried up —- there were other endangered species in dire straits, federal officials decided. In 2008, they declared the population "stable."
But it wasn't. Emmel raised money to keep doing the monitoring but finally ran out of enthusiasm. Meanwhile, a nine-year drought in South Florida was taking its toll on the butterfly, which depends on a certain amount of rainfall for survival, Emmel and Daniels said.
"The numbers started to dwindle again," said Mark Salvato, another scientist who with his wife, Holly, has spent countless hours hunting the elusive Schaus. The population became "dreadfully low."
When scientists went looking for the Schaus this summer, they found only four, Daniels said. That prompted the Fish and Wildlife Service to authorize an emergency captive breeding resumption June 8 — which turned out to be too late. No more were found.
"There should've been better monitoring," said Olle, whose group had helped with that as best they could.
While the scientists are pinning their hopes on the existence of a chrysalis or two containing females that have yet to emerge, Emmel said, "We checked for eggs. We checked for larvae. There was no pupae seen." Still, the hammocks are thick and they couldn't check everywhere.
Emmel admits to being upset about the downbeat epilogue to his big success story: "It's frustrating to have your hands tied … by bureaucratic indecision that lets things drift so far downward."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.