Butterflies in Perú are not as well-known as those in neighboring countries, and every collection and identification expedition results in new species being registered. Current investigations show that Peru has been graced with more than 20% of the butterfly fauna in the world.
In his classic 1863 travel book The Naturalist on the River Amazon, the great Victorian naturalist Henry Walter Bates (18251892) predicted that "... the study of butterflies -creatures chosen to symbolise the ethereal and the frivolous- instead of being looked down on, will someday be considered one of the most important branches of the natural sciences." With the passing of years, this belief has become a concrete certainty as butterflies are today the best-known group of terrestrial invertebrates.
Bates lived eleven years of his life (1848 to 1859) in the Brazilian Amazon investigating the natural history of this vast region crossed by the Amazon River and its tributaries. In those days, little was known of the plants and animals that lived in the central part of South America. As he slowly traveled upriver from Pará at the mouth of the Amazon towards the Brazil-Peru border, Bates made one of his transcendental discoveries: the diversity of butterfly species increased significantly as he traveled westward and upstream. Based on his observations, he was confident of finding the greatest diversity at the foot of the Andes and made plans to continue westward to the Peruvian towns of Pebas and Moyobamba with the objective of completing "... the examination of the Natural History of the Amazon Basin..."
Nevertheless, Bates had to abandon these long-cherished plans at the beginning of 1858 when he contracted malaria at São Paulo de Olivença, a town near the Peruvian border. His burning desire "... to discover the never-before-seen treasures of the marvelous lands lying between Tabatinga and the slopes of the Andes..." was denied him. He was forced to make a hasty return to the healthier region of Pará, and from there begin his return trip to England.
Diverse and Precious
Only in recent years have we learned how accurate Bates was in guessing that the greatest diversity in butterfly species would be found at the foot of the Andes, looking eastward towards the Amazon Basin. Inventory work done in the departments of Loreto and Madre de Dios have revealed astonishing concentrations of butterfly species.
For example, more than 1,300 butterfly species were counted at Pakitza, an area of less than 4,000 hectares located in Manu National Park, Madre de Dios department. More than 1,260 species were registered in the Explorers Inn reserve, an even smaller area located at the mouth of the La Torre River in the Tambopata-Candamo Reserve Zone (also in the Madre de Dios department).
Less exhaustive evaluations of other parts in Madre de Dios, Loreto, and other spots in the eastern Andes of Peru have produced comparable species counts. Although the numbers are impressive, even more notable is the fact that the Pakitza and Explorers Inn areas, being some 235 kilometers apart, have only 1,600 butterfly species in common. Though the forest in both places is physically very similar, only 60% of their butterflies are the same. Pakitza represents the richest documented butterfly community in the world; it shelters many more species than are found in Australia (396), Europe (441), or North America (679).
Peru not only possesses the greatest diversity of butterflies in the world, it also has the most species. More than 3,700 butterfly species have been found in this country, more than the 3,607 species counted in all of sub-equatorial Africa. Running a very close second are Colombia, Brazil, and Ecuador, with butterfly fauna somewhat greater than 3,200 species. Further along lies Venezuela, with 2,300 species, and Costa Rica and Panama, each with approximately 1,500 species.
Butterflies in Peru are not as well-known as those in its neighboring countries, and every collection and identification expedition results in new species being registered. It is estimated that the total butterfly fauna of Peru will exceed 4,200 species. The neo-tropical region of the Americas (Central and South America) is considered to shelter some 7,500 species, therefore it is correct to assume that more than half of these are present in Peru. Finally, as some 18,000 butterfly species are believed to exist on Earth, it is concluded that Peru has been graced with more than 20% of the total butterfly fauna on the planet.
By Gerardo Lamas
Volume /Issue 14, Page 06
Edited, Lola Salas
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