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Science in the rough

By Roger Hamilton

BELO HORIZONTE, BRAZIL — The three butterfly hunters agreed on a plan of action. The Jangada mine was preparing to expand, which could potentially reduce the flow of water of streams flowing through the town of Casa Branca, in Brazil’s state of Minas Gerais. This was bad enough, but even worse, any alteration of the streams, including siltation from mining operations, could jeopardize the future of an extremely rare butterfly.

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A barbed wire fence does not deter researchers from checking out a new area that might hold a rare butterfly.

Most squarely in the line of fire was Jangada Creek.Was it already being affected by the mine? And even more to the point, was it part of the extremely limited range of the butterfly, Parides burchellanus?

The three tossed their collecting nets over a barbed wire fence and gingerly squeezed through the strands. They followed a path as it dropped down the forested hillside and crossed the creek. There, Ivan Pimenta, researcher at the Belo Horizonte zoo and head of a new program to study and protect this endangered species, and Lucas Machado de Sale, local doctor and tourist lodge owner, elected to wait for the butterflies—if any—to come to them. Fernando Campos, highly respected self-taught butterfly expert, accompanied by a reporter, would follow the creek up into the forest. They would look for the butterfly as well as for their caterpillars and the vines on which they feed.

The two waded their way through the shallows and pushed through the underbrush where the water was deep or the passage blocked by fallen trees and logjams.

Campos kept an eye out for flickering wings, at the same time looking for caterpillars on the leaves of the vine Aristolochia chamissonis. He also monitored the condition of the stream itself, finding some evidence of siltation, but not enough to prevent the growth of the vines, which need a clean rock bottom to anchor their roots. “You have to be a botanist to work with butterflies,” he said.

He found no caterpillars. Nor did he find burchellanus eggs, which was not surprising. He explained that the butterfly lays its eggs on other plants few meters away from the stream and its chamissonis vines. Otherwise, he said, the caterpillars would eat the eggs and the tiny larvae that emerged from them.

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The caterpillar is not a burchellanus, but it’s pretty nonetheless. Its elaborate spines warn, ‘beware, probably poisonous to the touch.’

Campos surmised that the vines he was finding had grown from seeds from a stand of the plants further upstream. Above this, the vines would be absent, because their seeds are disbursed by the flow of the stream. No vines, no burchellanus, he said, surmising that this was perhaps one factor in this species’ seemingly uneven and erratic historic distribution.

Nobody knows for sure the reasons for this butterfly’s near extinction (see link to article “The butterfly and the mine” on the right). He has some theories, and looks forward to testing them as part of a program being carried out by the Belo Horizonte zoo with financing from Brazil’s National Environmental Fund. The causes will most certainly be multiple and interrelated, including the evolutionary history of the butterfuly and the chamissonis vine, geological and climate changes and human intervention. “This is going to be a very good experience, a model for getting data for developing other management plans,” he said.

The search for caterpillars proved fruitless; ditto for burchellanus. But every so often a neon blue morpho butterfly would fly past, and Campos would exclaim, “Look, what a marvel!” The morphos sometimes eat fermented fruit, he said, and become noticeably drunk.

From hobby to passion. Campos, who works as a technician at the Brazilian energy company Petrobras, began studying biology on his own 15 years ago. He turned his attention to butterflies because they are relatively easy to photograph, which was his hobby at the time. His interest grew into a passion, and his growing expertise earned him a respected place in local scientific circles. He made small butterfly gardens, and then was instrumental in the construction of a 24-square-meter structure at the Belo Horizonte Zoo, one of only three large butterfly gardens in Brazil. Its spacious interior teems with butterflies and often groups of excited schoolchildren.

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Campos demonstrates the proper way to hold a butterfly.

Now, at age 42, Campos is studying biology at the university. “I’ve become too much of a butterfly specialist, and I have to broaden my knowledge,” he said. He expects to have his doctorate in 12 years. Just as he loves fieldwork and research, he is excited about the prospects of teaching.

Campos may be a fanatic about butterflies, but he is not an environmental ideologue. Of course he is worried that expanding the mine could put the butterfly in danger. But he is not against mining. “For us, mining is extremely important economically,” he said. “I believe it is possible to extract the ore and at the same time protect the environment for a reasonable cost.” And is the mining company capable of doing the protection? “I have no doubt of it,” he said. “The mine and the butterfly can live side by side,” he said.

He loves burchallanus because it is rare, and the morpho because it is beautiful. “Each butterfly has its mysteries,” he said. Butterflies have always been revered as symbols of renovation, hope, fragility, beauty, and as such show up on many cosmetic products and jewelry, even tattoos. Does he have a butterfly tattoo? “Yes, on my heart,” he replied.

“I love to watch all butterflies,” he said, “but even more, I love to watch people who are charmed by watching butterflies.”

But unfortunately, seeing a burchellanus was not to be his reward for an afternoon of slogging through the stream and clambering over rocks and tree trunks. He returned to where he had left Pimenta and Machado de Sale.

“See anything?” he asked.

And in fact, they had, without moving three meters from their resting spot. It was unmistakably a burchellanus, following the stream course down the hillside and towards the town. It would be one more piece of empirical data to fill in the scientific puzzle.

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