Long-term trends in Persea palustris and Lauraceae-dependent butterfly species in central Florida before and after the introduction of laurel wilt disease

  • Zachariah J. Gezon
  • Elizabeth Y. BraatzEmail author
  • Craig Duxbury
  • Anne Savage
  • Jaret C. Daniels


Laurel wilt disease (LWD) is a highly virulent disease vectored by an invasive beetle. It was first observed in South Carolina in 2003, and it is now found in all Florida counties and nine southeastern US states. This disease causes extensive mortality of Lauraceae plants, an ecologically and economically important group. Many arthropods are associated with Lauraceae species, including palamedes (Papilio palamedes (Drury)) and spicebush (Papilio troilus (L.)) swallowtail butterflies, which host on swamp bay (Persea palustris) and redbay (Persea borbonia). It is thought that P. palamedes are at greatest risk from LWD. Limited information exists on the impacts on these butterflies after LWD becomes established. Therefore, we use a unique long-term tree and butterfly dataset in central Florida that spanned the introduction of LWD. We found that over two decades, swamp bay declined 90% in abundance. Interestingly, the majority (70%) of the swamp bays’ decline preceded the introduction of LWD. We suspect that a 5 year severe drought was the primary cause of mortality, since there was a 45% reduction in overall tree abundances. Despite these large reductions, a small number of swamp bay trees persisted, and others sprouted from basal roots. Butterfly monitoring began after 70% of the swamp bays had died. We found that, even though there was extensive loss of swamp bays, P. palamedes and P. troilus populations were relatively stable, and potentially were increasing. However, after LWD was confirmed in this area, these butterflies declined slightly. We also found that the reduction was slightly greater in P. palamedes than P. troilus. P. palamedes are more dependent on swamp bay whereas P. troilus are more adaptable at host-switching, perhaps to a Lauraceae tree Cinnamomum camphora (L.) J. Pesl. (Camphortree), which is common in our area and does not appear to be locally affected by LWD. Thus, while we found that swamp bay declined dramatically, dependent butterfly populations declined far less dramatically. Butterflies may be surviving because of host-switching, or because the remaining trees provide enough resources. Future research should focus on the persistence of these species, especially as this disease continues to spread throughout the southeastern US.


Laurel wilt Persea palustris Papilio. palamedes Papilio troilus Invasion Population dynamics 



The authors wish to thank the many individuals from Walt Disney Parks and Resorts® who helped to collect data and support The Walt Disney Company’s commitment to protecting nature. We extend special thanks to our expert butterfly survey leaders, especially Jamie Sincage, Barb Burkhalter, Becky Feuchter, Chelle Plasse, and Alison Styring, who have been with our program since it began and have trained and mentored our survey leaders for over a decade. We also wish to thank the many dedicated survey leaders who have contributed data to this project: Chris Phillips, Alice Cooper, Amy Schultz, Anne Marie Salvucci, Debbie Weber, Morgan Young, Shanan Boger, and the many cast members who assisted them. We also extend a sincere thank-you to the Reedy Creek Improvement District for their help throughout the sampling, including granting access to the field sites, and to the many people involved in monitoring the health and status of trees included in this study. We also thank Dr. Scott Shultz from Disney’s Horticulture division for his help in finding some local information on laurel wilt disease. Finally, we would like to acknowledge past and present members of the Disney’s Animal, Science and Environment conservation team, especially Rebekah Lindborg, who was critical in coordinating surveying dates, and Kari Van Nevel, who was instrumental in coordinating the revision process. We also thank the anonymous reviewers for providing valuable feedback on the manuscript.

Author contributions

AS and JCD conceived and oversaw the butterfly population monitoring, CD, ZJG, and JCD designed the study to examine the relationship between laurel wilt and butterfly population decline, ZJG, EB, and CD performed the analyses and wrote the manuscript. All authors contributed to data collection, revision, and rewriting of drafts.

Supplementary material

10841_2019_129_MOESM1_ESM.docx (72 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 71 KB)


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Zachariah J. Gezon
    • 1
    • 2
  • Elizabeth Y. Braatz
    • 1
    Email author
  • Craig Duxbury
    • 3
  • Anne Savage
    • 1
  • Jaret C. Daniels
    • 4
    • 5
  1. 1.Conservation DepartmentDisney’s Animals, Science and EnvironmentLake Buena VistaUSA
  2. 2.Thanksgiving Point InstituteLehiUSA
  3. 3.Wood, PLCAltamonte SpringsUSA
  4. 4.Florida Museum of Natural HistoryGainesvilleUSA
  5. 5.Entomology and Nematology DepartmentUniversity of FloridaGainesvilleUSA

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