Butterflies. Blanca Huertas’ passion is butterflies. She claims to be “fascinated” by them, because behind each species there is a different story.
There are not few stories, because in the world there are 20,000 species of butterflies. There are yellows, blacks, browns, blues and greens, violets, blacks and oranges and any combination you can imagine. There are big, medium, small, tiny. They are endless.
A small part of this lepidopteran plethora—as this species is scientifically called—is in the Natural History Museum in London. And they are in charge of Blanca Huertas, the guardian of the largest and oldest collection of butterflies in the world.
Blanca Huertas is Colombian. She was born in Bogotá and her passion for butterflies started at a very young age. She says that when she was a child, she would go out with her family to walk in the countryside and there she had her first encounters with these animals.
“We have always been a very peasant family walking in the mountains, visiting hot areas of Colombia. Obviously, that influenced my taste for butterflies a lot,” Huertas told CNN.
So she decided to study Biology and specialize in Environmental Management and Education at two public universities in Bogotá 20 years ago. In principle, she says, she had to make her own knits, use lots of “trinkets” to catch butterflies and use household materials, “all very handmade”, she explains, to study these insects.
“If I collected 2,000 other insects at the university, for example, I would have to hand-write each label of each of these species”, he recalls.
After earning a Masters in Systematics and Biodiversity at Imperial College London, and then a PhD at University College London, Huertas said the most important thing is the world that has opened up to her with the study of these animals. She explains that, looking at them closely, one can understand evolution, ecology, conservation and even climate change.
According to her, they are quite simple animals — “they are four wings, two antennae” — but what fascinates her is the universe and the diversity that exists in a small community of butterflies that fly together in the same place, although none is the same.
“Why do I like butterflies so much? Obviously, they draw attention for their beauty and fragility, for their complexity”, he says. “They are very interesting to understand the diversity of the world. Behind the whole history of butterflies, it is possible to understand all the problems and questions of biology”.
But not everything related to them is as elegant as their appearance.
“The butterflies are beautiful, they are very elegant, but there are butterflies that feed, for example, on excrement. This is something that shocks people”, he says. “They exist [também borboletas que] they eat fish, dead fish in rivers… not just the sweet nectar of flowers.”
The curator of the oldest and largest collection of butterflies
Blanca Huertas — known as ‘Madame Butterfly’, ‘Dr. Butterfly’, or ‘Guardian of the Butterflies’ — has worked at the London Museum of Natural History for 15 years.
“Obviously, getting this position has been the dream of those who study butterflies,” she says, smiling, proud to be the guardian of such a collection and also to be one of the few Latinas who works there.
Behind her, she points to giant cabinets containing five million copies of butterflies from around the world. About 40,000 boxes — which must be kept at around 14 degrees Celsius to prevent the butterflies from being damaged — which she methodically studies to discover new things every now and then. No wonder: this collection has butterflies collected from the 1600s to the present.
“Whenever I open a box I get distracted or find something new, a new species, something rare, something I’ve never seen before. So it’s fascinating to work on the collection, but it’s also fascinating, as I was saying, to meet other scientists, hear their work, help with their work”, she says, smiling. Always smiling.
But also “behind the roses there are thorns”, he says when talking about the difficulties of his work. According to her, it is a never-ending task, as her projects, however small, take months to complete.
The study of butterflies still has a long way to go, because although they are such “charismatic” specimens, as Huertas describes them, there are millions and millions to study. So much so that there is no consolidated list of butterflies in the world, and the specimens they keep in the museum are just part of the great diversity of the world.
“This collection is so big that everything you do will take a long time, it takes a lot of effort, a lot of work”, he says. “So you can stay here every day if you like, but you always get that feeling that you haven’t finished things… important things.”
Colombia, the country with the most species of butterflies in the world
It is not by chance that Huertas, born in Colombia, developed her love and her first researches for lepidopterans in her native country, as it is the country with the greatest diversity of butterflies in the world.
Colombia has 3,642 species and 20,085 subspecies of butterflies, which makes it the owner of 20% of all species of these animals on the planet, according to a study published in June this year by the Museum of Natural History in London.
“Colombia’s butterfly fauna is one of the most diverse and possibly the most complex of any country on the planet,” says the introduction to the book “Mariposas de Colombia. Checko list”, where the titanic work of studying this species in Colombia was captured.
“In Colombia, we didn’t even know exactly which species of butterflies flew until we published the book this year,” Huertas told CNN.
“Now that we have this information we can see which are extinct or which are no longer in their natural habitats at this point in history.”
To put Colombia in perspective as a world leader in butterflies, we can compare it with the number of species found elsewhere. For example, 496 species have been found in Europe and 4,000 across the African continent. In Colombia alone, there are just over 3,600 species of butterflies.
“More than 200 butterfly species on the checklist are unique to Colombia and not found anywhere else in the world, so if we lose them, there will be no reserve population and they will disappear forever,” said Huertas.
But environmental problems also put them in danger, according to Huertas.
“The region where we have the most problems with deforestation, with a lack of capacity to study species, is where we have the greatest diversity,” says the specialist.
The yellow butterflies of Gabriel García Márquez
These insects are also part of the country’s literary culture. The yellow butterflies are a figure associated with Colombia’s Nobel Prize winner for Literature, Gabriel García Márquez, who in his book One Hundred Years of Solitude immortalized them as a symbol of the magical realism with which he defined Colombia.
This year, Huertas and a group of researchers found a yellow butterfly that was discovered in 1800 in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. This specimen only lived for nearly 100 years — 99 exactly — in the collection of London’s Museum of Natural History.
The article about the discovery of this specimen has the following name: One Hundred Years of Solitude: The Rediscovery of Catasticta lycurgus, a yellow butterfly from the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. This is in honor of the yellow butterflies and García Márquez.
A group of researchers went looking for this species in the Colombian mountains and found it: “This is good news. This butterfly is rare, but it is not extinct”.
For now, Blanca Huertas continues her titanic work of conservation and study of butterflies and invites the public to visit these exhibits.
“If there is no public, there is no interest, and it is very important that the common citizen is also interested in butterflies because they are very important for the ecosystem”, he highlights.
* (Translated text. Click here to read the original).
Reference: CNN Brasil