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Butterfly Communities

by:Annika Keeley.

To protect and conserve ecosystems with all their variation of life forms, or biodiversity, it helps to know a lot about them. Having described and scientifically named most of the species is the first step. This alone is a huge challenge. It is estimated that 86% of species on the Earth have not been described .

One group that has been reasonably well studied even in the Neotropics is the butterflies. In Costa Rica, we even know quite a bit about their natural histories. To really understand the ecology of an ecosystem, however, it is not enough to have a species list. It is important to also document the abundances (the number of individual specimens of an animal) of the present species and how they vary through time and between locations.

Philip DeVries and Laura Alexander from the University of New Orleans and their colleagues captured fruit-feeding butterflies at the Tirimbina Reserve every month for five years to document the richness and abundances of this species community. They hung butterfly traps at many sites in the canopy as well as in the understory. To attract fruit-feeding butterflies, they baited the traps with fermented banana mush. They collected the butterflies in the traps during the first week of each month. Isidro Chacon from the Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad in Costa Rica then identified all the specimens and entered them into the institution’s collections. Most of the fruit-feeding butterflies belong to one family, the Nymphalidae. It is the largest family of butterflies with about 6,000 species that occur throughout most of the world.

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Many of the species are brightly colored and well known such as the admirals, fritillaries, and monarchs. The researchers caught almost 7000 butterflies of 101 species. Twenty-four species occurred only in the canopy, 14 species were caught only in the understory. The other species came to the high and low traps. Because of the differences in species and how frequently they were caught in the canopy or in the understory, the researchers determined that the assemblages of species in the canopy and in the understory are quite different. Over the five years of the study, most of the existing fruit-eating butterfly species could be sampled. The data from every single year told a different story than the data from the five years combined. Thus, it became obvious though that long-term studies are necessary to understand tropical insect assemblages. A very similar study had been conducted in a rainforest in Ecuador, South America. While most of the results from the studies were similar, in Costa Rica there were more species in the canopy but fewer species in the understory compared to Ecuador. The reasons for this difference are unclear, and need to be explored in the future.

Mora, C., D.P,Tittensor, S.Adl et al. 2011. How many species are there on earth and in the ocean. PLOS Biology 9, e1001127. DeVries, P.J., L.G.Alexander, I.A.Chacon, and J.A.Fordyce. 2012. Similarity and difference among rainforest fruit- feeding butterfly communities in Central and South America. Journal of Animal Ecology 81: 472-482.

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