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Partnerships for enhanced engagement in research (PEER)
Cycle 4 (2015 Deadline)

Mapping and conserving butterfly biodiversity in the Brazilian Amazon

PI: André Freitas (, Universidade Estadual de Campinas (UNICAMP)
U.S. Partner: Keith Willmott, University of Florida
Project Dates: January 2016 -  February 2019

Project Overview

4-478 Butterfly Search
A member of the research team searches the rainforest for butterflies (photo courtesy of Dr. Freitas).

The Amazon has some of the most diverse biological communities in the world, including butterflies, and recent expeditions by Dr. Freitas and his collaborators have found numerous poorly known or undescribed species. The PI and his team are involved in several projects on butterfly classification and evolution (systematics), but the Amazon is very poorly known in comparison with other regions of Brazil due to its sheer size and difficulties of transport. Given the insufficient knowledge of distribution and biology, conservation of faunas and species is currently not possible for the great majority of butterflies. In this project, the Brazilian research team will collaborate with a National Science Foundation-supported project at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the systematics of euptychiine butterflies, a highly diverse and abundant group in Amazonian forests, to sample new regions, build collections and provide vital capacity for research and conservation of Brazilian Amazonian butterflies. The researchers will compile data from numerous sources, including literature, databases, and specimens in major world museums, to improve our knowledge of Amazonian butterfly distribution. Poorly known groups or those containing species with restricted distributions, which are important both for understanding evolution and for conservation, will be targeted. A major goal of the project is to conduct up to eight expeditions to poorly sampled or unexplored areas of the Brazilian Amazon, including access by boat or light aircraft. Approximately 20,000 specimens will be collected during these expeditions, and these will be processed and databased. Mitochondrial cytochrome C oxidase 1 (COI) genes will be sequenced for some specimens to enable identification of cryptic species, where morphology alone is inconclusive.

Deforestation, exploitation for oil and gas, and climate change all threaten Brazilian Amazon biological communities. Butterflies are used as indicators of biodiversity and ecosystem health, as monitors of climate change, and as key species in biodiversity conservation. Butterfly distribution data therefore have great potential in identifying priority areas for conservation of Amazonian biodiversity, as has been done in many temperate countries. With the Brazilian Amazon playing a vital role in controlling South American and global climate, such data also provide a baseline for measuring future climate change in the region. This project will build capacity for research on Brazilian Amazonian butterflies by training graduate students and a postdoc and by strengthening collaborations among researchers and students in Brazil and with foreign institutions. The project will build substantial collections and online resources for future taxonomic, biogeographic, and conservation research, including enhancing major Brazilian butterfly collections with new material, archiving tissue samples for DNA study, and databasing specimens. The data collected will also be made available online via iDigBio, a major initiative for aggregating specimen data and sharing it with the public.

Summary of Recent Activities

As Dr. Freitas and his team neared the end of the second year of their PEER project in January 2018, the PI reported a wide range of results achieved in 2017. Postdocs Leila T. Shirai and Jessie P. Santos received training from NSF-funded U.S. partner Keith R. Willmott in the use of a Microsoft Access database developed for recording butterfly specimen data. This relational database contains a table of 17,218 localities, a table of neotropical butterfly species-group names (28,412 records) based on the Lamas (2004) neotropical butterfly checklist, and a form for entering new specimen records, with drop-down menus linked to both locality and taxon tables. In addition, the team completed compilation of records from multiple databases available to them, resulting in 27,332 locality records for 36,203 specimens of Brazilian butterflies (21,854 are from Amazonian states), including 752 species from 170 genera. The researchers will continue to use the MS Access database to capture locality data from specimens in Brazilian collections and collected through field work in the Amazon during the next year.

Morphological research on key butterfly genera, containing poorly known and often endemic Amazonian species, also continued at Unicamp. Dissection and drawing of male genitalia of several genera of Amazonian satyrines contributed to revisions of several genera of Euptychiina. In total, more than 500 specimens representing over 100 species have been dissected. Dr. Freitas’s PhD student Mario Marin completed and published a study focusing on a morphology-based phylogeny of Euptychiina (reported previously). In addition, three additional studies have been published and submitted, including two generic reviews (revision of Paryphthimoides and revision of Cissia) and a paper describing a new genus, Nhambikuara; the generic name is derived from that of the Nhambikuara, an ethnic group of Brazilian Native Americans inhabiting the cerrado and Amazon biomes. Postdoc Leila Shira also spent two months collecting butterflies along a 900 km transect from Manaus to Boa Vista, a very poorly sampled area of the Amazon with potentially high biodiversity. This material will form the basis for a large study investigating biodiversity patterns in northern Amazonia. All of the morphological studies were carried out in collaboration with the Florida team led by Keith Willmott, who is the co-author in most of the submitted scientific papers mentioned above, including studies in biodiversity, systematics and evolution of Amazonian taxa and communities.

4-478 Morning Expedition 4-478 Butterfly
The team conducted expeditions to Tumucumaque to conduct sampling which often involved early morning expeditions (photo courtesy of Dr. Freitas).

With regard to the molecular aspects of the research, Dr. Freitas’s PhD student Eduardo Barbosa continued to develop DNA sequence data from multiple taxa for ongoing projects on the systematics and evolution of neotropical butterflies, with a principal focus on Brazil. In total, more than 500 individuals were sequenced for DNA barcoding (important for species determinations), with most of them also sequenced for nuclear genes GAPDH and RPS5 (useful for resolving deeper relationships). The results have been included in several of the abovementioned submitted papers. Mario Marín continued with broad scale sequencing of specimens of Pareuptychia, including several recently collected specimens in Amapá, Roraima, Amazonas and Pará; most of the recently sequenced material comes from the field trips supported by the present project. Leila T. Shirai prepared a genetic diversity bank with tissues of most of the 2300 butterfly specimens collected on her extensive field expedition in the central Amazon. This material will be used in several ongoing projects in the lab, particularly in the collaborative project between Unicamp and York University, United Kingdom. A molecular and taxonomic study of Heliconius hermathena, a sand forest specialist, is almost finished. In total, seven populations representing five out of the six known subspecies are being sequenced, and these data will be used in a paper describing a new subspecies from south Pará.

Because the project got off to a slower than expected start and initially cost less than expected due to the availability of other grant funds to help support field work, a one-year no-cost extension is being provided to allow Dr. Freitas and his group more time to complete an expanded set of activities. This will include the organization of at least five or six additional expeditions in 2018, starting in early fall (which is early spring in the United States), when butterfly abundance begins to increase in the southern Amazon, and extending until December, before the beginning of the rainy season. The first expedition is planned to take place in late April 2018, in the region of Tefé, on the upper Rio Solimões. This is a region of extreme biological importance with very little available information. Most specimens in collections come from the first collectors to visit the Amazon (from H. W. Bates in the mid-1800s to others in the early 1900s), and precise data, such as the side of the river on which the specimens were collected, are usually lacking. In addition, the age of the material precludes molecular study. Establishing the true distributions and providing material for molecular study is critical to understand the apparent high biodiversity of the region and to help clarify the identity of many of the oldest species-group names for Amazon butterflies described from this region. Additional expeditions to Amapá (Tumucumaque), Roraima, Novo Airão, Porto Trombetas, and at least one locality in the western Amazon are being also organized. Beyond this list, even more expeditions will likely be planned after confirmation of each of the abovementioned expeditions, with the objective of sampling poorly known areas and filling some of the major gaps in distribution data.

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