Dr Blanca Huertas and her team with the helicopter which delivered them to the national park

In search of new species in wild Colombia

24 February 2016

Tropical forests in Colombia are home to a rich diversity of butterfly and moth species. Dr Blanca Huertas, Senior Curator of butterflies, joined an expedition for 72 hours of intense exploration in the wilderness.

Colombia's secluded table-top mountains are brimming with life, but due to the remote location of many habitats, scientists have been unable to study the secluded ecosystems in full. 

While scientists have previously explored lowland areas, Huertas became the first scientist ever to study Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) in the high mountains of Chiribiquete National Park, together with a team including zoologist and wildlife cameraman Richard Kirby.

The team had just a few days to survey as much as possible, armed with little more than a net, a tent, a few cameras and some traps.

An image of Chiribiquete National Park in Colombia

Chiribiquete National Park is home to a remarkable range of life but is one of the least studied areas in Colombia. © Andy Moorwood
 

The national park is so remote that the spot they arrived is an hour and a half by helicopter to the nearest town. The team was up against 12,000 square kilometres of thick vegetation, broken up by huge rocky outcrops and valleys.

Despite Colombia being well known for its varied ecosystems, currently scientists have no idea just how many species of insect might live in its immense forests. Huertas estimates there are almost 4,000 species of butterflies there, more than any other country in the world.

Huertas and her team set up camp at a relatively high altitude, and built overnight traps using light to attract moths and a mix of sugar, rotten bananas and dung as bait for the butterflies.

One of the butterfly species Blanca and her team found on the expedition

A Marpesia tutelina specimen that Blanca and her team found on the expedition
 

During the trip, they found 86 species of Lepidoptera, including 21 different butterflies and many unknown moths, proving just how rich with wildlife the area is.

Moths are very diverse, with about 140,000 species known to researchers, and they are difficult to identify in the field.

Huertas took as much information as possible about the habitats and life histories of each species observed. She is still working on the findings back at the Museum, consulting specialists on each group of unidentified moths.

Dr Blanca Huertas in the Chiribiquete Mountains

Dr Blanca Huertas found 86 species of Lepidoptera in the Chiribiquete Mountains
 

The data collected and published so far is the only available information about Lepidoptera on high terrain in this area. When all identifications are completed, the data will be added to the global bank of knowledge on butterflies and moths.

When she is not on fieldwork trips, Huertas is responsible for the Museum's butterfly collection - one of the biggest and oldest in the world and home to 4.5 million specimens.

Huertas said: 'We came home with various unidentified moths, which was a scientific achievement, although we only have one specimen of each, making the final identification difficult.

'But to find so many uncommon species in that time suggests the extraordinary richness of this place, which needs further study.

'This brief trip allowed me to be the first to start making a list of some of the Lepidoptera species living in the top of the Chiribiquete Mountains. I was very lucky.'

The view across Chiribiquete National Park

Chiribiquete National Park is home to mountains, tropical forest, savannas and rivers
 

A tray of Plebejus argus (silver-studded blue butterflies)

International collections

Learn more about Dr Huertas' work and the millions of specimens she cares for.