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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 - December 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

With the project now more than halfway through its fourth year, Dr. Freitas and his team are continuing to add to their database of Brazilian Amazonian butterflies, particularly the Heliconiini, Satyrini, and others collected in their most recent expeditions. Morphological research on key butterfly genera (those containing poorly known and often endemic Amazonian species) is advancing based on material collected during the project and from previous research trips. The data gathered will result in several additional publications, including taxonomic revisions and descriptions of new taxa (genera and species). Three main researchers were involved in principal morphological studies: Dr. Mario Marín, Dr. Eduardo P. Barbosa (now on a one-year visit to Sweden working with Dr. Niklas Wahlberg), and Dra. Thamara Zacca. In addition, one undergraduate student (Julia Ramos) and one Master’s student (Tamara Aguiar) were involved in morphological studies during the period. All studies were carried out in collaboration with the Florida team (led by Keith Willmott, co-author in most published and submitted scientific papers), including studies in biodiversity, systematics, and evolution of Amazonian taxa and communities. Research continues on the molecular aspects as well. All data are being used in the team’s ongoing projects on the systematics and evolution of Neotropical butterflies, with a principal focus on Brazil. The results are partly available in their recently published papers.

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).

An ongoing molecular study of Heliconius hermathena, a sand forest specialist, is advancing based on data gathered from eight populations representing five out of the six known subspecies. As previously reported, the first publication describing a new subspecies has been completed, and two additional genomic studies are being carried out: (1) the Master's thesis of Pedro Gusmão on mitogenomes at Unicamp and (2) a genomic study (in collaboration with Dr. Marcus Kronforst of the University of Chicago), including a whole genome sequencing and a population evolution study. All these studies involve the collaboration of Dra. Karina Silva-Brandão (Center of Molecular Biology - Unicamp). In addition, 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 field trips supported by the present project. Leila T. Shirai prepared a genetic diversity bank with tissues of most of the 2,300 butterfly specimens collected in the central Amazon. This material will be used in several ongoing projects in the PI’s lab, and in particular in a collaborative project between Unicamp, Harvard University (USA), and University of York (United Kingdom).

A series of short videos has been produced and released on the team’s YouTube page, including several different activities, projects, and field trips: The researchers are also expanding their local outreach activities in a project that aims to bring their results to the people in the parks and other public spaces in Campinas region. During their expedition to Tefé and Iranduba (September-October 2018) a television crew accompanied the team to record a famous Brazilian TV program called “Profissão Reporter.” The objective was to illustrate to the public the challenges faced by researchers in Brazil. Videos are available at:

Under a no-cost extension through December 31, 2019, the project is moving into its final phase. One field expedition is planned for July 18-30 to Faro, Juruti, and Manaus, and the team will organize the last expedition in September-October. The remaining PEER funds will be used for molecular work and consumables.

Useful Links:

Short course on the biology of butterflies, July 23-27, 2018 (link to Part 1 of 7 may be found at with links to the subsequent sections at the end of the first video)

Project Facebook page: 

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