Park rangers use butterflies to take the pulse of the planet in a biodiversity hotspot – Florida Museum Science

In 2017, a group of scientists sounded the alarm by showing that flying insects had declined in Germany by more than 70% over the previous three decades. Earlier and later studies have shown similar patterns in insects globally. But with 1 million known species – and conservative estimates that there are millions more awaiting discovery – there aren’t enough entomologists to document the full diversity of insects, let alone less how their populations change over time.

In a new study, entomologists are turning to park rangers for help in Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park, widely regarded as one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet. Researchers, students, and park staff have been actively engaged in monitoring butterfly abundance at Yasuní since 2016 as part of an ongoing project that turns the script on how most survey efforts are carried out in the tropics.

“This study has clear benefits for science and conservation, but it was also important that it included social benefits for the people we worked with,” said lead author Maria Checa, a researcher at the University Pontifical Catholic of Ecuador and former doctoral student at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

“We still know so little about the impacts of environmental change in tropical areas because we simply don’t have enough researchers with the expertise to study these regions,” she said. “We need to empower local actors with this knowledge, because they are key players in conservation.

Yasuní encompasses over 3,700 square miles of pristine rainforest and is home to two isolated indigenous tribes.

Map and photos of Keith Willmott

Building alternatives to parachute biology

Many scientists who focus on conservation often hit a snag at the start of their efforts: most of the world’s biodiversity is unevenly distributed in the tropics, but the majority of researchers who study it live primarily in temperate regions. . As a result, the flora and fauna of many industrialized countries are relatively well studied and benefit from extensive monitoring programs, such as the decades-long survey of insect decline in Germany.

A similar scheme in the UK using butterflies as an indicator of insect community health was started in 1976 and has since been adopted in at least 19 other European countries. These ongoing surveys offer a wealth of data to scientists, but the trends they reveal provide only a small snapshot of the changes taking place on a global scale.

“In Britain you’re dealing with less than 60 butterfly species, whereas in Yasuní alone there are probably over 1,500,” said lead author Keith Willmott, curator and director of the McGuire Center. for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity from the Florida Museum.

Yasuní National Park is nestled between the Amazon lowlands and the Andes mountain range. Butterfly species from these two very diverse regions converge in the park, making it the perfect place to track species abundance.

Photo by Keith Willmott

Scientists in many industrialized countries have tried to compensate for this imbalance by conducting short-term projects in tropical ecosystems, often paying local residents to help with surveys and collections. This practice, sometimes called parachute biology, can provide important scientific knowledge. But when the project ends or funding runs out, researchers return to their institutions and residents return to normal life.

Willmott says these limited surveys will be insufficient to effectively monitor long-term population trends and help stave off what is currently the worst extinction event since the death of the dinosaurs.

“Trying to make sense of patterns of abundance in a tropical community where there is less climatic seasonality and a myriad of complex interactions going on is incredibly complicated and requires long-term data sets,” he said. he declares.

However, initiating and sustaining these programs is not always an option in remote areas where human populations are sparse. So when park rangers expressed interest in helping investigate butterflies at Yasuní in 2015, Willmott saw the potential for a large-scale partnership.

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Park rangers use photo identification guides, including a book written by lead author Maria Checa, to identify butterflies they capture in bait traps.

Photo by Maria Checa

“Ecuador is dotted with national parks that have pristine forests, and part of the job responsibilities of many rangers is to conduct biodiversity monitoring. It just seemed like a potential solution to the expense and logistics of running these projects,” he said.

Butterflies are an ideal early warning system

Even with the help of park rangers, there is no realistic way to realistically sample the diversity of an entire rainforest. Instead, biologists rely on indicator species, organisms that are widely distributed and easy to find but are sensitive enough to environmental changes that they can be used to infer how related groups are doing.

For insects, these indicator species are butterflies.

“There are a number of reasons why they make good indicators,” Willmott said. “They can be found all over the place, they’re incredibly diverse, and they mirror what’s happening in other organisms.”

Butterflies occupy a central role in networks of labyrinthine ecosystems. Most rely exclusively on plants for food, and plants – in turn – rely on butterflies for pollination. Caterpillars and butterflies also make a good meal for predators higher up the food chain. If you take butterflies out of the equation, the networks that hold natural communities together begin to unravel. This makes it the perfect litmus test for assessing ecosystem health.

And butterflies have another advantage that helps them stand out from the crowd. “From a practical standpoint, there is no doubt that they are by far the easiest group of insects to identify,” Willmott said. In a place as diverse as Ecuador, that last component is imperative.

Park rangers collect and compile diversity data

Working with Checa, Willmott, co-author Sofia Nogales of Ecuador’s National Biodiversity Institute, and their colleagues, rangers quickly learned how to collect butterflies with bait traps and identify the most common species. more common. Since 2017, they have been conducting regular surveys with accuracy rates comparable to those of trained field biologists. But their contribution to the study did not stop there.

Rangers learn to sample with bait traps, which the butterflies can fly into but not get out of.

Photo by Keith Willmott

“The rangers wanted to be more involved in the project, so we started talking about writing a manuscript together,” Checa said. “We set up a workshop in Quito where we provided computers and trained them to run basic statistical analyzes on butterfly data.”

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Park rangers Silvia Campos and Leslie Bustos identify a butterfly caught in a bait trap.

Photo courtesy of Yasuní Park Rangers

For Checa, the project represents a significant change in the way biodiversity monitoring is carried out in her home country of Ecuador, a change that she hopes will help protect sensitive ecosystems and give speak to those who inhabit them.

“People who live in rural areas close to protected forests often lack resources and formal training opportunities. It is difficult for many to complete high school,” she said. “We are talking about the decentralization of knowledge from academic institutions to local populations and from cities to rural areas.”

The Yasuní National Park rangers, three of whom are co-authors of this study, are currently analyzing the data they continue to collect, which they plan to publish in an upcoming article. “We are proud to be the first park rangers in Ecuador to carry out a long-term monitoring program – this project has enriched our knowledge of biodiversity and the importance of insects in ecosystems, especially butterflies, helping us do our job better,” said co-author Leslie Bustos.

The continued support of the national park administration has also been and continues to be essential to the success of the project. Checa and Willmott hope to expand butterfly monitoring to other protected areas in Ecuador in the near future.


The researchers published their findings in Insect Conservation and Diversity.

Park rangers Vernardo Ojeda and Alcy Bustos are co-authors of the study, as are Patricio Salazar with the University of Sheffield.

The National Science Foundation and the Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador funded the research.


Sources: Keith Willmott, [email protected];
Maria Checa, [email protected]

Writer: Jerald Pinson, [email protected], 352-294-0452

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