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Massive butterfly Peru

From the Field

And at Last I See the Lights…Peru Week 6

December 10th 2023

Tagged: Amazon rainforest, Conservation, Sustainable Travel, Volunteering Abroad

It’s the end of my third week here in deepest darkest Peru. I think I’ve sweated more in the last 3 weeks than I have in the rest of my life combined. I have more insect bites than I can count. I’ve drank so much water that I think I must be close to transforming into a fish.

Aclimatising to life as an intern abroad

It’s so hot here. I miss falling asleep in a cold room, all cosy tucked under the covers. Here, I sleep under a thin sheet and I’m still too hot. I miss being able to just shower and not have to check my body for ticks at the same time. But I am far from ready to leave. Every day here is an adventure with new things to see and learn.

The pace of life here is much slower than what I’m used to back home. Most days we spend only a few hours conducting field research. The rest of the time we cook, clean, carry supplies or just chill.

A weekly routine as an intern in the Amazon

Every Tuesday and Friday, we take a boat down the river to the nearest village, Lucerna, to pick up food and other supplies. Carrying the heavy boxes is rewarded with a visit to the shop, to buy ourselves a cold drink and a snack. Many people buy Inca Cola, a soft drink only found in Peru. I’m not a fan of its bubblegum-banana flavour so I opt for an aloe cactus drink (which is actually mostly grape juice). I used to like getting it from Chinese supermarkets when I was younger, and I actually had it once when I was in South Africa last summer too.

Sundays, technically our day off, break the routine a little. There’s sometimes still work to be done, but after this, we play volleyball or go swimming in the river. One time we took the boat to a small waterfall along the river. We climbed up the side of the waterfall and sat at the top. Sitting up there, looking out over the incredible view of the river and the forest, suddenly made me think ‘I can’t believe this. I’m living in the Amazon rainforest!’

Afterwards, we swam in the river. “Be careful how you step,” Julio, one of the staff, warned us. “There’s sting rays around.” He explained how to slide our feet under the water without lifting them from the ground. This way, you won’t suddenly put your foot down on a sting ray and get stung. Sting rays should sense the movement of your feet and swim away. Caimans also live in the river, but I’ve only seen them there at night.

Butterfly trap research project volunteering in PeruVolunteer in Peru | WorkingAbroadMy wildlife conservation research project during my internship in the Amazon

This past week, my main focus has been beginning my own research project. I’m investigating the diversity of fruit-feeding butterflies through a vertical column from forest floor to forest canopy, in terra firma and floodplain terrain. That’s a mouthful. Basically, I want to find out what different kinds of butterflies are present in the forest canopy, on the forest floor, and in between the floor and canopy. I want to see if this differs between terra firma (dry land) and floodplain (areas subject to seasonal flooding) terrain.

Knowledge of butterfly diversity along a vertical column and in different terrain types is important for assessing ecosystem health and function. As fruit-feeding butterflies are pollinators, they play a crucial role in maintaining plant diversity and ecosystem stability. Knowledge of butterfly diversity is also important to determine where to direct conservation efforts. For instance, conserving terra firma terrain, if that’s where there’s higher butterfly diversity, or conserving tall trees if the canopy has higher diversity than the understory.

Collecting this data is also important in understanding how climate change may alter butterfly distribution and diversity in the future. As temperature and weather patterns change, the habitat that butterflies use may also change. Monitoring these changes may help predict broader climate-induced ecological shifts, which could be useful in creating conservation strategies not only for butterflies but a variety of other species.

morpho in PeruButterfly Amazon Rainforest | WorkingAbroadCatching butterflies as an intern in the Amazon is trickier than it sounds!

Getting the butterfly traps up into the canopy was no picnic. First, we had to find a suitable tree. This meant finding a tree with a high branch to hang the traps from, with not too many other branches in the way underneath it. Then we attached a weight to a length of string and threw it over the highest branch we could. This took many attempts and I let Vicente, one of the research coordinators, take the reins for this part. At first, we tried to use a slingshot but it broke.

Once the string was over the branch, we replaced it with a climbing rope. Vicente was keen to practice his tree-climbing skills, so he climbed the tree and then threw the string with the weight over an even higher branch. Next, we hung a string for the butterfly traps on this new branch and attached the traps. To check the traps, I can stand on the ground under the tree and simply pull on one side of the string to lower the traps to the ground.

For me, the most difficult part of this set-up process was untangling the piece of string attached to the weight, which somehow was constantly getting tangled.

Juvenile Brown CapuchinAmazon Conservation | Volunteer Peru | Working AbroadMonkey business

Speaking of tangled, Maria, the other intern, commented that the butterfly traps looked like the lanterns in Tangled. This soon had us singing Disney songs, which may or may not be what drew the spider monkeys and capuchins over. One even had a baby on its back!

One of the monkeys tentatively reached out to touch the climbing rope before leaping off again. I hope they don’t eat the bait meant for the butterflies. It’s made of bananas after all.

Every afternoon I check the butterfly traps. Every day it gets dark at around 5.30 pm, so I like to check the traps at about 3 pm, to give the butterflies enough time to fly into the nets during the day. There are 6 traps in total. First, I look into the trap to see if there are any butterflies in it. If there are, I reach in and gently cup my hands around the butterfly, before removing it from the trap, holding its body between my thumb and fingers, being careful not to touch its wings or legs if I can.

I’ve never handled butterflies in this way before, but so far I’ve not damaged any, that I’m aware of anyway. While I’m holding the butterfly, I take pictures of both sides of its wings, so that I can ID it later. Once a butterfly escaped from the trap as I was checking it, which sent me chasing after it! I managed to catch up to it and photograph it when it landed on a nearby tree.

Something that made me really happy this week was finding out that there’s a slightly battered guitar at the research station. I’ve been missing playing guitar and playing with my bandmates, so I’m excited to play again!

Hope you’ve been enjoying reading about my travels – remember you can join this project too!

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Written by Holly Fortune

About the Author

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