Some plants and animals are very common. Others – and usually most others – are comparatively rare. Similarly, some species are extremely widespread, whereas others are much more geographically restricted. How are these two fundamental properties of species related? The answer may have important implications in a world increasingly affected by human-caused habitat loss.
In 1859, the pre-eminent biologist and explorer Charles Darwin asked, “Who can explain why one species ranges widely and is very numerous, and why another allied species has a narrow range and is rare?”
Today, biologists are still unable to answer this fundamental question.
Furthermore, most studies to date have focused on vertebrates of temperate regions, whereas the overwhelming majority of Earth’s species are invertebrates – most of them insects – found in the world’s tropical rainforests. Unfortunately, even the basic biology of nearly every species of tropical insect remains almost completely unknown.
I’m planning a year-long expedition to the Peruvian Amazon, to tackle these questions in the world’s largest and most biologically intense rainforest. My study group are an extremely diverse and beautiful community of tropical insects in South America: the brush-footed butterflies. Field work will consist of collecting, marking, and releasing butterflies using hand-held nets and baited traps placed high in the rainforest canopy of the Tambopata Reserve, in the southern Peruvian Amazon. This place is tremendously rich in natural and cultural heritage, yet biologically it remains relatively unexplored.
Habitat loss due to deforestation in the American tropics is extreme. Preliminary studies suggest that as many as 600-700 species of butterflies may be endangered due to restricted range-size in the region, but the data required for a more thorough analysis are currently unavailable for most species. We fear they may be facing rarity or even extinction faster than we are able to evaluate the risk.
My project in Peru will generate data for several hundred species of butterflies. These data will be used to establish the threat status for individual species, while simultaneously identifying key areas of conservation priority in South America.
The project will also create a framework that we can then use to evaluate the dynamics of species rarity and extinction. This information is essential for designing reserves to protect tropical biodiversity using limited resources.
Donations will help to pay for local assistants to help gather butterfly abundance and other ecological information. Hiring assistants locally in Peru is an excellent way to promote environmental awareness and sustainable development in remote areas where there are few alternatives to resource extraction (e.g. hunting, logging, gold-mining).
Travel to remote field sites in Peru can be expensive, especially for humble graduate students! A part of each donation will also be used to support travel to Peru and accommodations at a remote research station in the Tambopata Reserve, in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon.
Numerous discoveries are guaranteed – almost nothing is known of butterfly biology in the tropics, compared to faunas of northern latitudes. I anticipate that a full year of sampling butterflies will yield new records for the study region, and perhaps for the country. My study will be among the first of its kind to generate an extensive dataset for one of the world’s richest insect communities. None of this will be possible without your support – thank you for being a part of the research team!
I grew up in suburban Baltimore, where I spent every bit of my free time scouring the local fields and small forest patches for insects. My early fascination with the natural world led me to pursue a degree in biology at the University of Maryland, and I graduated in 2006. After spending several years travelling and working as a research assistant throughout the United States and Latin America, I’ve begun my studies anew. Now I’m seeking my PhD at the University of Florida (UF), a mecca for the study of butterflies, my lifelong passion. At UF’s McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity I hope to tackle some of the most fundamental questions of butterfly ecology, which to date are woefully unanswered – especially in the tropics. Ultimately I hope that my research will help fill in major gaps in our knowledge of tropical butterfly ecology, so that we might conserve these wonderful creatures into an uncertain future.
This is amazing, I just reached my funding goal!! Now that I've reached this milestone, I can begin to plan for the Peru trip. In particular, I'll begin to search for an assistant to help me at the field site in the Amazon. I'll also start to coordinate with Daniel Gutierrez, who will be helping me gather butterfly data at Machu Picchu. I will initially hire him for a day or two a week, but I'd love to hire him full time if possible. That'll require more cash, so please keep spreading the word! Thanks for helping me get this far -- I'm looking forward to seeing what I can raise in the next few weeks!
Wow -- we're just over halfway through the campaign and I'm already three-quarters of the way towards my goal! Thanks so much to all who have donated to my project so far!
For logistical reasons, I've decided to change my field site in the Peruvian Amazon from the Tambopata Reserve to the Cultural Zone of the Manu Biosphere Reserve. I'll be staying at the Manu Learning Centre (http://www.crees-expeditions.com/lodges_mlc.htm), which promises to be an excellent place from which to gather data on butterfly abundance and ecology. I'll also be working with the Asociacion Hijos del Sol near Aguas Calientes, in the Machu Picchu Historical Sanctuary. These two sites provide the ideal locations from which to gain a better understanding of two distinct and very diverse butterfly faunas in southern Peru! More to come...