1,500 Butterfly Species Found in Single Park

Boatloads of butterflies have just been tallied at a national park in Bolivia.

Bolivia's Madidi National Park is home to at least 1,500 butterfly species, based on an ongoing survey of the region and related studies. The park is now believed to contain more different types of butterflies than any other protected area on the planet. To put its biodiversity into perspective, consider that there are only 725 butterfly species in the entire United States and Canada combined. Madidi National Park is just the size of New Jersey. Researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and partnering institutions still have months of fieldwork ahead, but they have already identified 950 species of butterflies and 130 subspecies in Madidi. The number 1,500 is just a conservative estimate, and is expected to go up once species that enter the region from adjacent areas of Peru are taken into account. As for why the park is such a butterfly paradise, WCS Madidi landscape director Robert Wallace told Discovery News, "Madidi is the only park in the world with an almost 6,000 meter (19,685 foot) altitudinal range." This provides an incredible number of diverse protected microclimates. He added that the park also "bridges the tropical Andes and the Amazon, which are the two most biologically diverse regions on earth."

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Many of the butterflies at Madidi have an ethereal look. The Alexina clearwing, for example, possesses colorful wings that resemble art from a beautiful stained glass window. The Alexina is one of 50 species from this particular genus (Oleria) that have been described to date.

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Some of the richest shades of blue in the animal kingdom are seen in butterflies, such as the appropriately named glittering sapphire. "The glittering sapphire is a relatively small butterfly that, like many species, feeds on nectar from different flowering plants," Wallace said. Such plants and other vegetation grow in a variety of habitats within the park, he continued, "including Amazonian rainforest, Amazonian natural grasslands, a huge variety of Andean cloud forests, high Andean peaks, and open vegetation."

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The new count of butterflies at Madidi nearly triples the previous tally for the park, according to the expedition's entomologist Fernando Guerra Serrudo and the other researchers. Before the recent fieldwork and literature analysis, only 348 butterfly species and seven subspecies were known to be in the region. Wallace loves the name of this resident of the park: blushing phantom. He said, "The blushing phantom is bafflingly beautiful, and is surely one of the most wonderful common names in the natural world."

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The glasswing butterfly lives within a layer of vegetation beneath the main canopy of a forest at Madidi. It is just one of the many delicate butterflies included in the recent survey. The effort to document all species at the park -- not just butterflies -- is called Identidad Madidi. In addition to WCS, the following institutions are among those involved in the project: the Ministry of the Environment and Water, the Bolivian National Park Service, the Ministry of Education, the Bolivian National Herbarium, the National Natural History Museum, and the Alcide d'Orbigny Natural History Museum. The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation provided funding.

The malachite butterfly, Wallace said, was "named after the strikingly colored green mineral of the same name." It and the other different types of butterflies certainly have plenty of plants to choose from at Madidi. "Botanists estimate that 12,000 species of plants occur in Madidi, each providing a number of specific resources for butterflies and other invertebrates," Wallace said.

The mangrove buckeye could be the park's most well traveled butterfly. Wallace explained, "The mangrove buckeye is a distinctive butterfly and is one of the few species present in Madidi whose global distribution reaches North America in Mexico, South Texas and South Florida."

The Periander metalmark really does look as though a jeweler coated the insect's fluorescent blue body in a dark precious metal. "Unmistakable, the Periander metalmark is most frequently encountered near streams and rivers in the rainforest," Wallace said. Butterflies like this one must balance the need for self-advertisement for visual communication with the need to avoid predation. Madidi is obviously welcoming to butterflies, but it is also a paradise for animals that eat them, too. Wallace said that at the park "there are an estimated 1,100 species of birds, many of which are insectivores, as well as many fish, amphibians, reptiles and mammals that will also take butterflies."

There are so many beautiful butterflies at Madidi, but in the running for loveliest and most dazzling of all is the Castalia green mantle. As Wallace said, "With its very own luminous green galaxy of stars, the Castalia green mantle is another spectacular Madidi butterfly." He added that dozens of guards work to protect this and the other invaluable species found within the park. The public may visit through some of the recommended indigenous community ecotourism lodges such as Chalahan, San Miguel del Bala and Mashaquipe, as well as through certain tourism groups that highlight eco-travel.

This butterfly has a very human-centric name: Pamela. It was first described in the year 1780. Wallace said, "This is one of several butterflies whose scientific and common name seem to have been inspired by members of the fairer sex." The name seems particularly appropriate here, as the butterfly is tending to eggs, which look a bit like yellow bowling pins arranged in rows on a leaf. It is a good sign that a new generation of winged wonders is already in the works at the Bolivian park.