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The Coontie - Jurassic survivor

As life has changed on our planet over millions of years, so new species have arrived and others have died out. In the long term, Nature is very much into replacing the old with the new in its method of constant refinement and adjustment to environmental changes known as evolution. Just occasionally though a species survives for longer than we might expect. One of these species in the Bahamas is the Coontie (Zamia pumila).
The Coontie is a Cycad, a primitive Palm-like type of plant that dominated the earth 200 million years ago. It lived in the age of the Dinosaurs - known to us now as the Jurassic. Today only 150 species of Cycad survive in the entire world. The Coontie is an ancient plant that was widely used by the Indians before Europeans came to the islands. Its root was then used to make Sago, a type of flour. It must have been a hazardous process though when first discovered, because the root contains a poisonous substance called cycasin that must be removed by washing or boiling.

A rare butterfly of the Bahamian Pinelands is the Atala Hairstreak (Eumaeus atala), a small one inch butterfly with a bright orange abdomen. The larva only feeds on Zamia and is becoming endangered throughout its range. Once thought to be extinct in Florida, a small population was discovered in the 1960's. The Butterfly survives with the help of people who plant it's larval host food, the Coontie, and it's adult nectar foods, such as wild coffee. 

The Coontie is found predominantly in the Pine Barrens -  the sparse forests of Caribbean Pine found in the northern islands of Abaco, Andros, Grand Bahama and New Providence. These forests are subject to occasional fires, consequently most of the plants found there are to some extent resistant to fire. The Pines have a thick spongy insulating bark that protects the tree from the heat and the Coontie survives because its root tuber is buried well down in cracks in the limestone.

Mankind does not use the Coontie today, for there are better, more convenient and faster growing sources of starch available. It remains though as a unique and interesting member of the Bahamas Pine Barren community -  although not many people know that!

R. Attrill 2006