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!

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!