Rumbos Home

Butterfly/Mariposa Title Page

A great number of butterfly species are drawn to the river Tambopta on a warm evening. © Mylene D'Auriol

Zaretis Itys;  Madre de Díos, Tambopata.  A perfect imitation of a dry leaf. © David Ahrenholz

Morpho menelaus; Madre de Dios, Tambopata, of brilliant irridesence.  © Heinz Plenge

Siproeta stelenes; Huánuco, Tingo Maria.  © David Ahrenholz

Not a punk hairdress, but the furry larva of megalopygid moth.  © Benjamin Collantes

Butterfly/Mariposa © Heinz Plenge

Dione glycera © David Ahrenholz

Prepona laertes; Huánuco, Tingo Maria. © David Ahrenholz



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 (1825–1892) 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 Explorer’s 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 Explorer’s 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.

Underside of part of the wings of Morpho deídamia.       A colorful cloud of butterflies.  © Heinz Plenge

More here, less there

Nevertheless, this richness in butterfly species is not uniformly distributed in all of Peru.


The Pacific coast and the arid western slopes of the Andes from Tumbes in the north to Tacna in the south, and from sea level to 5,000m (16,000 ft), shelter relatively few species; some 400 are currently registered. More than half of these are found in the department of Tumbes in the extreme north of Peru. Quantities decrease progressively as one travels southward, with Moquegua and Tacna being the departments where least diversity is found. Despite the small quantity of butterfly species in western Peru, they are extremely interesting from a biological and evolutionary point of view, as a significant number are endemic to their areas and various species are new to science.

Butterflies attracted to the lacrymal secretions of a 'taricaya' tortoise. © Heinz Plenge

The Andean mountain region (from Piura in the north to Puno in the south) includes an enormously complex group of ecosystems lying in a turbulent landscape criss-crossed by innumerable mountain streams flowing towards the Amazon Basin. A moderately rich and specialized butterfly fauna lives here. The richest butterfly communities are found in the few remaining mountain and cloud forests which dot uncultivated and grassy mountains between 1,500m and 3500m (5000 ft and 11,500 ft). A great number of species of limited distribution have evolved in these areas.

The poorer butterfly fauna that lives near the summits at over 3500m (11,500 ft) display some examples of extreme biological adaptation for survival in the rough climate, with a few species even being found near the feet of glaciers at over 5,000m (16,500 ft). Given the inaccessibility and extreme environmental conditions, a large part of this Andean butterfly fauna is little-studied. A recent evaluation in the Cordillera Vilcabamba lying between Junín and Cusco explored an area at 3,350m (11,000 ft) for two weeks, registering only twenty nine species of butterflies. This apparently meagre result nevertheless included eleven species new to science. In contrast, another recent inventory taking place at Machu Picchu Historical Sanctuary registered 252 butterfly species in areas between 1,500m and 4,000m (5000 ft and 13,000 ft) in altitude, with only twelve of these being considered new to science. The most diverse butterfly communities are found at moderate altitudes in the Andean mountains of the Cajamarca, Amazonas, Huánuco, Junín, Cusco, and Puno departments.

Consul fabius; Huánuco, Tingo Maria © David Ahrenholz

By far, the greatest diversity in butterflies is found on the eastern slopes of the Andes and in the Amazon Basin. There, especially at altitudes of less than 800m (2600 ft), butterflies fly in astonishing quantities and varieties, forming a veritable explosion of color, form, and movement. In favourable spots and with ideal climate conditions, hundreds of species and thousands of individuals can be observed in a single day. More than 2,000 species have been found in the Madre de Dios department, and each year as investigation continues more are being registered. Paradoxically, some twenty years ago almost nothing was known of the butterfly fauna of Madre de Dios, while today some of the best-examined spots in the country are found in this department.

Butterfly conservation in Peru

In the last decades, concern has grown over the increasing environmental degradation of our planet, with Peru being no stranger to this global tendency. There is no doubt that human population is laying intolerable pressure on the natural ecosystems of the planet, and butterflies are an important and conspicuous element of these ecosystems.

Luckily, with respect to butterflies, the situation in Peru is much less drastic than in other countries. There is no reason to believe that any have become extinct or even that their survival is especially threatened here. Although it is known that a few species have disappeared from some areas, they are still common and even abundant in other areas of their distribution. For example, the species Heliconius peruvianus used to be common in Lima and the adjacent port of Callao until 1932, but members of this species have not been seen in these areas since then. This Heliconius is still very common in the north of Peru (Tumbes, Piura, Lambayeque and Cajamarca) and its existence at this point does not seem to be endangered.

In Peru and other places, the greatest threat to the survival of butterflies is the degradation and destruction of their habitat. A common misconception is that the collection of butterflies for scientific, educative, or commercial purposes is highly damaging and can lead to the extinction of a species. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is absolutely no scientific evidence that these activities have provoked the extinction of any species of butterfly. On the other hand, there is ample evidence that the destruction of habitat by human intervention has been the principal factor in the disappearance of various species of butterflies from the face of the Earth.


By Gerardo Lamas
Volume /Issue 14, Page 06
Edited, Lola Salas

[Top of Page]    Rumbos Online