We conduct basic and applied research in the Peruvian Amazon that is the foundation of science-based conservation. From biological inventories, population monitoring, and in-depth studies of rainforest ecology to the impacts of national policy and the issues facing our local communities, our projects aim to generate and share the information needed to effectively protect the Amazon, its plants and animals, and sustainable livelihoods.
Lepidoptera diversity & biology
Southeastern Peru is among the most biodiverse places on Earth. A single 65 km stretch of road leading from the Andean city of Cusco to the lowland rainforest of Manu National Park, for instance, is known to contain 2,500 species of butterflies alone. That's more than 3 times the species found in all of North America, and there are still an estimated 500 species remaining to be discovered in the area.
Beyond this one study in Manu, however, we know very little about the butterfly and moth species found throughout the broader region. How abundant are they, and what are their regional distributions? We know even less, and usually we know nothing at all, about the natural history and ecology of the vast majority of species. What plants do butterflies feed on as caterpillars, and how do they interact with other species to form a part of the incredibly complex Amazonian ecosystem? Again, we just don't know.
As threats to the Amazon mount, it is more important than ever to answer these questions. We focus on the Lepidoptera—butterflies and moths—as a model study group. These insects are diverse and abundant and, as plant-feeding insects, are highly representative of Amazonian biodiversity.
Studying the diversity and biology of Amazonian butterfly and moth species involves work in the rainforest as well as the lab. Here, an ASA researcher examines a caterpillar at Finca Las Piedras - this is the first time the life cycle of this species has been documented. Photo: Geri Carbonell
In addition to shedding light on the diversity and biology of Amazonian butterfly and moth species, the project offers many opportunities for training the next generation of biologists and conservationists in southeastern Peru and beyond. Photo: Aaron Pomerantz
Long-term project goals
Create a comprehensive list of butterfly and moth species at Finca Las Piedras
This is an essential first step to conducting further ecological research. To date only a handful of such lists exist for SE Peru, and none are current.
Generate a region-wide database of species' distribution records
Essentially, where do different species occur at the regional scale within SE Peru? This information will allow us to prioritize highly diverse parts of the region for future conservation efforts.
Identify butterfly host plants
With as many as 20% of the world's plants threatened with extinction, identifying the species relied upon by Lepidoptera in SE Peru is critical for evaluating the threat status of species in the region.
Understand the impacts of climate change and other human activities
Global warming is causing the Amazon to become hotter and drier, yet we know almost nothing about the impacts on the region's plants and animals. We are studying butterflies' adaptations to seasonality and the impacts of climate change on populations, the first study of its kind in SE Peru.
Summary of project results to date
Butterfly and moth species
documented in SE Peru
Number of new butterfly host
plant records discovered
Publications in peer-reviewed
Students & early-career
ASA sampling localities in southeastern Peru
Communicating our Findings: Publications
We generate lots of new information through our Lepidoptera Diversity and Biology Project. In fact, due to the incredible diversity of southeastern Peru and the near total lack of research on butterflies and moths in our area, almost everything that we document – Lepidoptera life cycles, their host plants, behavior, and ecology – is new to science. To make this information available to those who can make use of it, we publish our findings across a variety of platforms, especially peer-reviewed scientific journals.
Below are a few of our most recent publications:
Forest dynamics & plant phenology
The southeastern Peruvian Amazon is among the regions on Earth being most heavily impacted by global climate change. The region's annual dry season, in particular, is becoming longer and harsher, yet the impacts of these changes on the rainforest's biological communities remain almost completely unknown—and very poorly unstudied.
Increases in the length and severity of the dry season might have many consequences for Amazonian species. Plants, for example, might alter the timing of fruiting and flowering—phenology, as plant ecologists call it—as the normal climatic cues they rely on change. The forest may also be affected in other ways. The amount of carbon stored by rainforest trees, or the way the forest recovers from disturbance, might also be affected by a changing climate.
We are monitoring forest dynamics and plant phenology at Finca Las Piedras to determine what consequences these changes might have for the Amazonian ecosystem and the local people and wildlife that depend on the predictable availability of seasonal resources in SE Peru. Read below about how we're doing this.
A tahuari (Handroanthus serratifolius) tree blooms during the dry season at Finca Las Piedras. Photo: Geoff Gallice
Forest dynamics describes how the rainforest changes over time—tree growth and mortality, as well as shifts in community composition. To monitor this we have installed a 1 hectare permanent plot at Finca Las Piedras in which we periodically inventory every plant and also study what trees are producing flowers and fruits on a monthly basis.
The 1 hectare plot at Finca Las Piedras is part of a global network of others located throughout the world's tropics that are a crucial tool for understanding how rainforests function and how they are being affected by climate change and other human disturbances. Our plot is valuable because it is located in an otherwise poorly-studied part of the Amazon that is experiencing unique threats and challenges compared to other parts of the basin
Binoculars are a simple but effective tool for monitoring plant phenology. Photo: Geoff Gallice
Brazil nuts (Bertholletia excelsa) are 'emergent' trees, meaning they tower over the rest of the rainforest canoy. They grow in great densities in SE Peru and their nuts are an important seasonal resource for people and wildlife. Photo: Geoff Gallice
Aguaje is collected by climbing trees and cutting only the ripe fruits, ensuring the long term sustainability of the harvest. Photo: Paul Bertner
We are conducting detailed monthly monitoring of the phenology of two species of great economic and ecological importance in SE Peru, Brazil nuts and 'aguaje' palms, to explore the impacts of climate change on the production of their fruit. These two species are prized by local people and wildlife alike for their highly nutritious and tasty fruit, and together they represent the most important non-timber forest products that are sustainably harvested anywhere in the Amazon.
Brazil nut (Bertholletia excelsa)
This is the SE Peruvian Amazon's leading non-timber forest product and, after gold and timber, the third most important export commodity of any kind in the region. Brazil nuts grow on giant emergent trees and fall to the ground once per year during the annual rainy season. The trees grow in sufficient densities here that their harvest from natural forest is economically viable, and so the government has set aside approximately 1 million hectares as concessions for sustainable Brazil nut extraction. Although the collection of Brazil nuts is ostensibly sustainable, overharvest and lack of tree planting (to replace trees that die of old age) threaten the activity's long-term viability. Climate change further threatens the system yet its impacts remain remain poorly understood.
We are studying Brazil nut phenology in SE Peru to monior the impacts of climate change and other stressors on this ecologically and economically important species. Our goal is to ensure the long-term sustainability of the Brazil nut harvest which represents an incredibly rare win-win for both people and nature in the Amazon.
Aguaje (Mauritia flexuosa)
Mauritia or 'aguaje' palms grow in dense stands known in SE Peru as 'aguajales'. Although they are limited in extent compared to other rainforest habitats, these areas have great value—delicious and highly nutritious, aguaje fruit is an important food for both local people and wildlife. Aguajales are also incredibly rich carbon sinks, and they play a large role in the regulation of hydrological cycles.
As with Brazil nuts, climate change threatens to disrupt aguaje phenology, which will have cascading effects on the local economy and on wildlife that depends on this abundant seasonal resource. Trees are also often cut down to harvest aguaje fruit as climbing techniques are not universally practiced. Our goal is to monitor the impacts of climate change and other human activity on this important local resource to contribute to its long-term protection.
More About Forest Dynamics Plots
The Amazon is the most complex ecosystem on Earth, so making sense of how the rainforest works, as well as how it changes over time, is a real challenge. That's where permanent forest dynamics plots come in. Scientists working all across the world's tropics have set up these plots and monitor them regularly to shed light on rainforest ecology. The ASA is contributing to this global plot network with its own plot, established in 2021 at Finca Las Piedras.
Watch our video to learn more about how we set up our 1 hectare permanent forest dynamics plot at Finca Las Piedras and what we can learn about the rainforest by studying it.
Biological inventories & monitoring
The southeastern Peruvian Amazon is among the regions on Earth being most heavily impacted by global climate change. The region's annual dry season, in particular, is becoming longer and harsher, yet the impacts of these changes on the rainforest's biological communities remain almost completely unknown—and unstudied.
Increases in the length and severity of the dry season might have many consequences for Amazonian species. Plants, for example, might alter the timing of fruiting and flowering—phenology, as plant ecologists call it—as the normal climatic cues they rely on change. Such a change could have important consequences for plant reproduction, as well as for local people and wildlife that depend on the predictable availability of seasonal forest resources.
Species recorded at Finca Las Piedras
Research Spotlight: Camera Traps
Animals in the Amazon are notoriously difficult to observe and study, due to their secretive habits and the incredible density of the rainforest vegetation. But we have a secret weapon: camera traps!
Camera traps are triggered remotely when an animal passes in front of them, allowing us to passively document the animals present in the rainforest, day or night. Watch the video below to see a few of the things we've found using this simple yet powerful technology:
The goals of our bird research are to document species' occurences in a poorly studied part of SE Peru and to monitor populations over time. Techniques include opportunistic observations and a standardized, weekly monitoring study conducted at Finca Las Piedras. Birds are integral to the rainforest ecosystem, especially as seed dispersers, and monitoring their populations is critical to restoration efforts.
The streams, swamps, and other wetland habitats of our area are part of the Manuripi River watershed, one of the most diverse yet poorly studied river systems in the world. Aquatic resources, including the fish and other animals that inhabit them, are under threat in SE Peru due to widespread illegal gold mining and other human activities. Our goal is to document the species found at our study sites to better inform aquatic conservation efforts in the region.
Insects & other arthopods
The overwhelming majority of Earth's species are arthropods, especially insects, and we invest heavily in studying them. Our goals are to document arthropod occurrences throughout SE Peru, describe new species, and study their biology. This is a long-term effort given some estimates put the number of unknown rainforest taxa in the millions. A better understanding of this key group of organisms will greatly boost efforts to conserve a representative sample of the region's nearly unmatched biodiversity.
We document mammals using active and passive survey techniques, especially camera traps. Our efforts have shown that Finca Las Piedras and its surroundings have an intact mammal community and contain the full complement of top predators and other large mammals, including jaguar, puma, giant anteater, white-lipped peccaries, and giant armadillo, among many others. These species play a disproportionate role in regulating the rainforest ecosystem and studying their populations is of key importance.
SE Peru is one of the world's most important centers of diversity for plants, yet very little is known about species' regional distributions or abundances. Our plant inventory aims to document the species present at Finca Las Piedras, focusing on fertile individuals (those with fruits and/or flowers). A major part of this effort is the production of a fruit and seed guide that will be a major resource to promote botany and plant ecology in this poorly-known region.
Reptiles & Amphibians
These animals are facing serious threats, especially due to the amphibian fungal disease Chytridiomycosis. Amphibians, in particular, are sensitive to environmental stress and are important indicators of habitat quality. Therefore, we consider surveys of this group to be of great urgency. Data gathered regarding reptile and amphibian presence and abundance will be useful in understanding the impacts of human activity and how we can protect as many species as possible.
These guides are based on inventories conducted by the ASA at Finca Las Piedras and throughout southeastern Peru.