Contact Us  |  Search  
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine
Partnerships for Enhanced Engagement in Research
Development, Security, and Cooperation
Policy and Global Affairs
Home About Us For Applicants For Grant Recipients Funded Projects Email Updates

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

The project team has produced a short video about the new genus Nhambikuara (subtitles in English available)

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 previously reported, morphological research on key butterfly genera containing poorly known and often endemic Amazonian species continued at Unicamp during the second quarter of 2018. Mario Marin, PhD student of PI André Freitas, finished his PhD and is back home in Colombia. However, a postdoctoral fellowship for Mario has been approved, so he will be back soon to keep working with all the material collected during the project. An undergraduate student, Julia Ramos, just started her training in butterfly morphology as part of this PEER project. A paper describing a new species of Heliconius was accepted in late March and the online version should appear soon. Another paper, entitled “Before it is too late: description of a new genus and species of butterfly from a highly threatened Brazilian biome,” appeared in the April – June 2018 issue of Revista Brasileira de Entomologia 62(2): 148–158 and may be accessed online at All of this research is being carried out in collaboration with the Florida team led by U.S. partner Keith Willmott, including studies in biodiversity, systematics, and evolution of Amazonian taxa and communities.

On the molecular research side of the project, 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. The results have been included in several recently submitted papers. A molecular study of Heliconius hermathena, a sand forest specialist, is almost finished. In total, eight 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. With regard to taxonomic descriptions, the PI and his team are also describing a new subspecies of H. hermathena from South Pará State, including morphological and molecular data. In addition, with postdocs Eduardo Barbosa and Thamara Zacca and recently graduated PhD student Mario Marin, Dr. Freitas is preparing taxonomic revisions of key genera of Satyrinae butterflies with description of several new taxa. 

4-478 Morning Expedition 4-478 Butterfly
The team carried out sampling expeditions to Tumucumaque, which often involved early morning travel by river (photo courtesy of Dr. Freitas).

The team carried out two field trips in April and June (Curuá Falls, Altamira, Pará; and Maués, Amazonas), and a new trip to Alta Floresta (Mato Grosso) is being organized for August 2018. Four additional field trips will be organized by the time the project is completed in February 2019. In addition, the PI and his group will present a course on the biology of butterflies at Unicamp July 23-27, 2018. More than 25 participants have registered, including graduate and undergraduate students, professionals, and artists.

Please visit the project’s Facebook page at for publications related to the project. A brief video is also available on YouTube at

Back to PEER Cycle 4 Grant Recipients