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The tropical Andean region

There are two main dimensions to species diversity: the number of species within a single community (alpha or community diversity) and how the community changes from one area to another (beta diversity, or turnover). Whichever dimension is considered, the world's diversity of butterflies, like that of most other organisms, reaches its indisputable peak in the tropical Andes, in the countries of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. It is also true that of all the butterfly faunas on the planet, none are so poorly understood as those of the tropical Andean region. This unsurpassed biological richness and lack of basic information, coupled with ever accelerating loss of natural habitats, make the Tropical Andean region one of the highest global priorities for butterfly research and conservation.

Tropical Andean Butterfly Diversity

An estimated total of nearly 5,500 species of butterflies occur in the five tropical Andean countries, representing nearly one third of the world's species. Approximately 2,000 species are in the families Papilionidae, Pieridae and Nymphalidae, the focal families of this project, of which approximately half are confined to the tropical Andean region. Part of the reason for this great diversity is the confluence of three of the four main neotropical biogeographic provinces in the tropical Andean region, including the Transandean province, the Amazon and the Andes themselves. But whereas faunas are relatively uniform within the first two of these provinces, within the Andes there are rapid and marked changes over very short distances, both along the length of the mountain chain as well as across elevational gradients. Documenting, describing and understanding this extraordinary "turnover" is one of the greatest challenges in research on tropical Andean butterflies.
Proportions of butterflies occurring within major regions

While butterfly taxonomy and classification are relatively advanced in comparison with other insect groups, much work remains to be done in the tropical Andean region. The recent publication in 2004 of the checklist of neotropical butterflies by various specialists (G. Lamas [ed.], Checklist: Part 4A. Hesperioidea - Papilionoidea. In J. B. Heppner [ed.], Atlas of Neotropical Lepidoptera. Volume 5A. Association for Tropical Lepidoptera/Scientific Publishers, Gainesville) has provided the first means to quantitatively measure progress towards describing neotropical butterfly species. At the date of publication of this work, 623 species of neotropical butterflies still awaited description, with c. 300 of these in the tropical Andean region. The figure below shows that there has been a renaissance in taxonomic work on neotropical butterflies since 1980, and the completion of the task of describing all known neotropical species within 20 years now seems realistic.

Data from Lamas, G. [ed.]. 2004. Checklist: Part 4A. Hesperioidea - Papilionoidea. In J. B. Heppner [ed.], Atlas of Neotropical Lepidoptera. Volume 5A. Association for Tropical Lepidoptera/Scientific Publishers, Gainesville.

Project development history

The idea for the project grew from a meeting held in 2002 at the Natural History Museum, London, involving taxonomists from the museum and members of Project BioMap, a project also funded by the Darwin Initiative. Project BioMap is an alliance of institutions with the initial goal of databasing Colombian bird specimens. The meeting's purpose was to expand the scope of Project BioMap to include additional taxa, such as butterflies, from throughout the tropical Andean region. However, despite the relatively well-resolved taxonomy of neotropical butterflies, the difficulties in reliably databasing scattered collections without the assistance of expert taxonomists to confirm identifications was immediately recognised.

The Tropical Andean Butterfly Diversity Project was thus initially conceived in 2003 to address this problem, by linking expert taxonomists around the world to help curate important collections of Andean butterflies and thus permit the data contained within them to be extracted and made available. At the same time, the project would aim to expand future work on butterflies of the region by training students as well as providing resources for research and conservation.

In March 2005, the Tropical Andean Butterfly Diversity Project received funding from the United Kingdom's Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs "Darwin Initiative", and the first project work began in August 2005.