Amazon Giant, Yasuni National Park, Ecuador

Amazon Giant, Yasuni National Park, Ecuador
There’s an old Cree Indian prophecy that goes "Only after the last tree has been cut down... Only after the last river has been poisoned… Only after the last fish has been caught, only then will you find that money cannot be eaten." I find these words clever yet profoundly insightful, and more meaningful today than ever. Across the globe, vital ecosystems are disappearing at an alarming rate, a rate matched only by the speed with which the species inhabiting those systems are falling to extinction. This is particularly true in the Neotropics, where an extraordinary diversity of plants and animals are struggling with the catastrophic consequences of widespread deforestation and pollution. Many of the forests’ secrets elude ecologists, secrets whose answers will be essential if we are to protect the awesome biodiversity they contain. I study Neotropical butterfly ecology, with the hope that I may contribute to a better understanding of these wonderful creatures, and help conserve them in an uncertain future. Follow me during my work and adventures throughout Latin America here!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Tiputini Biodiversity Station

The other day I spent my first full day at Tiputini Biodiversity Station (administered by Universidad San Francisco de Quito), about two hours further down the Tiputini River from the Yasuní Scientific Research Station (run by Catholic University in Quito). This site is even more remote than the YSRS, and the forest here is completely intact and totally pristine. All the big trees and big mammals are here, which are both indicators of a healthy ecosystem. There are even photos to prove it, results of an intensive camera trapping study conducted over the past several years (my favorite photo is of the ‘melanistic’, or black jaguar, captured by a camera on the very trail that I patrolled today for butterflies). Here there is no oil drilling, no hunting, no slash and burn – no disturbance whatsoever. Needless to say, this is a very exciting place to collect butterflies – or to conduct any other business for that matter!

There are so many animals here at TBS, you can even find them in your backpack! This protective mother alerted me to her clan's presence with a stern bite to the index finger. I apologized and gently tried to escort her outside. Of course, she thought the bag was a perfectly fine place to stay, and did not want to move.
One thing that I noticed after just a few days in Yasuní (at both sites actually) is that I was finding a higher diversity of butterflies in my traps and hand net than at my previous sites. Of course, the  bulk of specimens are still represented by the usual suspects: a few very abundant brush-footed butterfly species (Nymphalids), and the ubiquitous flies, moths, and dung beetles. However, I am finding new butterfly species in the traps and net much more often here in the national park than at my other sites, where the forest is more disturbed (i.e. nearby slash and burn and clearcutting, extensive secondary forest, large animals basically hunted out). Based on such a short sampling period, and on relatively little effort, it is difficult to say why this might be. Can it be that a more undisturbed forest supports a higher diversity? Or am I collecting these rare ‘singletons’ solely due to chance? Hopefully some more rigorous analysis can shed some light on this question when I return from the field.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Just another day in the jungle...

It’s almost cliché, the recounting of that first tropical rainforest experience; how, upon stepping into the steamy dark tangle, one is instantly enthralled by the sounds, the smells, the intense heat and humidity. Yes, with the rainforest it is love at first sight, and there isn’t a true tropical naturalist on Earth that hasn’t told the same story. I’ll be no exception, because for me, my first time in a tropical rainforest was indeed a sort of eureka moment, for lack of a better term. I remember it vividly. Even the simple, or subtle things - like the way the philodendrons seemed to grab for the canopy, or how the lichens covered the tree trunks - fascinated me. From that moment on, I couldn’t spend enough time in the jungle.
But the senses can become trained, and while these moments of intense wonder grow fewer and farther in between with the passage of time, they do still occur – and I had one this morning. I was trying desperately to throw a stone, with string attached, over a liana high in the forest canopy, in order to suspend one of my butterfly traps. I descended a  small ridge to where my stone had fallen, and hacked right through a wasp nest with my machete, getting stung on the eyelid in the process, among several other places. Two more tries, no luck. But then, I nailed it! And just as I began to savor this mini-victory, a pair of scarlet macaws flew raucously overhead. I caught a quick glimpse of them through the leaves, gaudy with suits of brilliant red, yellow, and blue feathers, and with a boisterous call to match. My eye still throbbing from my wasp attack, and the sound of the macaws fading into the distance, there I was – in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, machete in hand, living my childhood dream. Yes, I thought, it’s great to be in the rainforest. It was one of those eureka moments, and I enjoyed it, however fleeting it might have been.

If they hadn't stung me on the eye, I might have felt bad for wrecking their house...

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Yasuni National Park

Today I spent my first day at the Catholic University’s Yasuní Scientific Research Station in Yasuní National Park, after a hectic week of leaving Sacha Lodge for Quito in the Andes, and then back down to the Amazon basin. During my one month stay at Sacha, I nearly doubled my total count of butterflies during my month-long stay. Interestingly, I found that the species that were most common in both my traps and hand-net were quite different from those that I found in Jatun Sacha and Yarina, despite the three sites’ fairly close proximity to one another and their similar habitats. This can be due to a wide variety of factors. A species’ abundance changes throughout the year, in response to anything from host plant flowering to temperature and moisture cycles; this is even true in the relatively aseasonal western Amazon forests. However, different abundances can also be due simply to either local or more widespread distributional patterns; that is, perhaps certain species are more abundant in one place simply because their host plant is found there, or they were heavily parasitized in one place and not the other. Sometimes, historical or biogeographical causes might be responsible. The potential reasons underlying these observations are practically limitless, underscoring the difficulty ecologists face when trying to tease out patterns in abundance and distribution. For this reason, I am visiting as many sites in eastern Ecuador as possible, in order get the most robust picture of butterfly abundance possible.

Sacha Lodge itself was a wonderful place to spend a month. Situated right on Laguna Pilchicocha, close to the Rio Napo, and surrounded by water philodendrons and floating mats of grass, the setting is absolutely spectacular. The theme at the lodge is luxury, luxury, luxury, and guests are pampered in every way during their 4 or 5 day stay. Excursions include visits to a wooden tower built around a massive kapok tree, a 300 meter canopy walkway, trails through the rainforest, and canals to observe wildlife – monkeys, anacondas, and of course, loads of butterflies are just some of the things one might see (I saw all these and more). Naturally, I was quite lucky to stay at such an amazing place. In exchange for my stay, I helped a bit with their butterfly farm; current levels of production are relatively low, and I provided some advice how to increase efficiency and thus output. I also guided tourists again for a few days, again enjoying very much my time with my guests, a friendly group from Alberta, Canada.

Laguna Pilchicocha, near the Rio Napo

Sacha Lodge

Wildlife found in the laguna: hoatzins, or stinky turkeys

Hamadryas arinome, seen from the wooden Kapok tower

Yasuní National Park is a vast reserve in the northeastern corner of Ecuador, in the lowlands of western Amazonia. The park is a complex mixture of pristine tropical rainforest, oil fields, and indigenous lands. Both Kichwa and Waoarani indians live in and around the park, and unfortunately, the discovery of oil here has brought some extreme and very rapid changes. Repsol, which is, from what I’ve been told, an American oil company, built roads and oil platforms; they also provide the local Waoarani with everything they need – transportation, food, housing. One of the most important results of this situation has been a population explosion. In addition, a culture drastically different from the majority of other Ecuadorians (among other factors) has meant that the Waoarani have had a particularly difficult time adjusting to the enormous change imposed upon them. One of the most important questions to ask is what will happen to these people when the oil wells run dry, and the oil company goes packing? Will colonists invade and clear the forest for unsustainable farming and grazing, as is happening elsewhere throughout huge portions of the Amazon? Or will the Waoarani take over as stewards of their own land? We’ll see soon enough.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Back in Quito Again...

Since I haven’t had a chance to write in a while, this is going to be a long one, so…

I arrived in Quito last night after a particularly long and worrisome bus trip up from the lowlands. The night before last, a police demonstration against some proposed cuts in benefits turned into a violent confrontation; several of the sensationalist media outlets, of course, called it a ‘golpe de estado’, which means ‘coup’! The president had tear gas fired at him, was taken to the police hospital, and was subsequently held captive in the hospital by the police before being rescued by the military. The airport was stormed by the military and the police put up roadblocks… luckily, the escalation to violence ended there, with only one person dead and about 50 injured. Needless to say, I was a bit worried about what would happen when I arrived in Quito. Luckily, everything seems to have calmed down, and life in the capital appears to be back to normal…

The Ecuadorian president, Rafael Correa (left), telling his 'captors' that if they want to kill him, then, well, they should just 'go ahead and do it'.

My month stay at Yarina was excellent. My time was roughly divided between checking and baiting my traps, collecting butterflies with my hand net, and helping out at the lodge. At first, when the management asked me if I could help out with some ‘translations’, I thought this would entail translating brochures, web pages, etc. However, what they needed was translating for guests, so I accompanied a native guide and translated his tours. This turned out to be one of the most rewarding aspects of my stay. I learned a great deal about the medicinal, and sometimes non-medicinal, uses of many of the rainforest plants. For example, I learned what plants are used to make curare, a poison that the Kichwa indians used to use to poison their darts for hunting, and also about plants that are used for an extremely wide variety of ailments and conditions of all sorts. I used my position to inform guests about the marvelous diversity of insects and other critters found in the rainforest, and I think they all enjoyed my excessive enthusiasm… I even captured my first caiman!

Showing off my super-amazing caiman-wrestling skills!

Now, back to butterflies...

The living world is exceedingly complex, and opportunities for generalization rarely present themselves. For precisely this reason, ecologists have had a difficult time describing biological systems in terms of universal rules or laws. Nowhere is this more true than in the tropics. The rainforest in particular is a place of contradictions; extraordinarily high diversity but relatively low individual abundance. But then there are some abundant species; however whose abundance may be highly heterogeneous throughout the range. The forest is seemingly stable yet is constantly changing and highly volatile. Disturbance has certainly played a role in the high diversity found there, but not too much nor too little. Basically, everything you’ve heard about the rainforest is true – and not.

One of the few ecological ‘laws’ that ecologists talk about is a positive relationship between abundance and distribution. That is to say that species that are found in higher numbers at a particular location also tend to be found over a wider geographic area. For instance, the monarch butterfly is easily found wherever it occurs, and in high numbers. The species also has an enormous range, from Canada to South America. There are, in contrast, many species of butterflies – like several species of hairstreaks for example – that are found only in isolated areas, and are also only rarely encountered. Similar examples abound in the natural world, in plants and animals of all sorts.

While much evidence for this positive relationship exists, the majority of evidence comes from birds and mammals in temperate areas. Very little support comes from insects, and even less from insects in the tropics. In contrast, the vast majority of the world’s biodiversity lies precisely here – in the insect communities of the tropical rainforest. In my opinion, any ecological law that neglects to consider this group of animals isn’t that general at all. So, I’m here in the Ecuadorian Amazon, testing this idea in Neotropical butterflies. My hope is that my research can help us to unravel some of the mysteries of this exceptionally complex, beautiful, and threatened place.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Yarina Lodge

I´m very happy to report that the past 10 days spent collecting butterflies and exploring the rainforest at Yarina Lodge have been nothing less than amazing. This place is much more remote than my previous site, Jatun Sacha, and this is evidenced by an abundance of wildlife and even more impressive diversity of butterflies. So far, I´ve collected over 650 specimens of a large variety. No statistics yet, but I anticipate the species list will be impressive by the time I leave Yarina at the end of the month. In addition to loads of butterflies, I´ve also seen several types of monkeys, a tapir, capybara, agoutis, coatis, maccaws, snakes, frogs, caimen, and of course, tons of cool insects. I´ve even spotted my first-ever velvet worm (funny the things that impress entomologists??). There is even a rather bothersome parrot that comes to investigate all my colorful equipment when I return from the forest in the evening. When that´s the biggest complaint, I guess things are pretty good. 

This guy finds the pink strings I use to hoist my traps into the canopy irresistible!

As for the lodge itself, the setting is great. It is situated atop a hill overlooking a small tributary of the Rio Napo, and consists of a group of about 20 or so immaculate thatched cabinas. As opposed to Jatun Sacha, there is no road access, and this is surely a contributor to the diversity of wildlife and overall health of the forest ecosystem. However, it should be noted that the Amazon in Ecuador is often seen as a frontier, and there are plenty of folks lined up to tame it. FOPECA, one of the oil companies here, is building a massive bridge across the Napo, and roads are constantly being debated. How long before a road opens up this forest to oil, settlers, and development? For now at least, this is just a distant thought here at Yarina. At any rate, I am very grateful that the folks of Yarina have graciously agreed to have me here. You may take my description of the place as a resounding endorsement!

The main hut at Yarina.

Thatched cabinas.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Back from the forest...

I arrived today in Puerto Francisco de Orellana, locally known here in Ecuador as El Coca, after a long bus ride from Jatun Sacha closer to the Andes mountains. Coca is a strange place, a sort of frontier town, overwhelmingly laid in concrete and absolutely bustling with oil workers, indiginous folks, and settlers alike. To me it feels like the Wild West, of course with a heavy Amazon influence. Coca is situated right on the Rio Napo, just as Jatun Sacha. However, here the river is much wider, and it´s muddy waters eventually empty into the Amazon as one of its major tributaries.

My two week stay at Jatun Sacha was a success. I worked out some of the kinks in my protocol, and above all collected a lot of great butterflies, about 450 in total. There are some species that are very common and abundant here in the western Amazonian rainforest, so I was fortunately able to let many butterflies go with just a mark on the tip of the forewing. However, not all were so lucky; I collected a number of individuals as voucher specimens that I will identify and donate to collections both here in Ecuador and back in Gainesville. Collections are an absolutely vital part of studying tropical biodiversity, especially when it comes to insects. Without good collections, we cannot hope to tease out patterns in the abundance and distribution of species.

Tomorrow I´m off to Yarina Lodge, another hour or so down the Napo by motorized canoe. I´ll be there for about a month, and I expect to see some great things there. I wonder how the butterfly diversity there will compare with that of Jatun Sacha…

Sunday, August 22, 2010

My assistant Cristina and I arrived last Wednesday at our first site, Jatun Sacha. Located about an hour east of Tena, the capital of Napo province, Jatun Sacha is a reserve of approximately 2500 hectares of mixed primary and secondary lowland rainforest. The station itself is located just off the paved road, which is both good and bad. Good because access is easy. Bad because the road has brought many settlers who have cleared the surrounding land for slash and burn agriculture. In the 1990’s, several biologists, including Andrew Neild and George Beccaloni, among others, counted over 800 species of butterflies in the reserve. After a decade or more of continued deforestation, how many of those species remain?

Upon our arrival, we set out to survey the trails, searching for the best site to begin setting up traps. One of the trails seemed ideal, so we began putting traps up every 100 meters. Getting traps into the canopy is important, since many species do not descend to the ground and thus cannot be trapped there. So, we try to get them as high as possible, and this often turns into quite an ordeal. Using fishing weights, we throw the string over a branch, and ideally the weight falls right back with the string attached. Of course, it doesn't always go so smoothly, and it can be extremely frustrating to lose weights and strings to the tangle of leaves above. The effort is worth it though, as the traps produce some of the most amazing creatures imaginable from the poorly-studied rainforest canopy.

Traps, set at ground level (left), and high in the forest canopy (right).

We use rotting fish to bait the traps. While the fish smells absolutely disgusting to us, butterflies can't seem to get enough.

With the traps finally set, we began the more key task of measuring a number of ecological variables from the areas immediately surrounding the traps. These variables will hopefully give us a better insight into the factors that influence butterfly abundance and distribution, of which very little is known. A better understanding of patterns in abundance and distribution, in turn, will be important in conserving the most species possible using the limited resources available. I'll have more to say on that in future posts.

Monday, August 16, 2010


Quito from La Virgen de El Panecillo, atop El Panecillo
After arriving late last night in Quito, I decided to postpone my first ever blog post until now... Today was pretty uneventful. I took care of some last minute things, like getting rubber boots and buying some topographic maps of the places I plan to visit in the next four months. I did take a couple of hours to take in a wonderful view of Quito, from La Virgen de El Panecillo, an impressive 45m statue built atop a small volcanic loma (hill) in south-central Quito. She is pictured here stepping on a snake, and from what I'm told that is standard for the madonna. More unusual is the fact that she is winged. Either way, a very nice statue.

La Virgen de El Panecillo
More to come soon!