We Found the Rare Pinocchio Lizard in Ecuador!

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The city of Quito reminded me in many ways of other major cities in South America: bustling, crowded, lots of taxis, and loud construction. Unlike other cities, however, and much to my surprise, just a short drive from Quito put us in one of the most beautiful environments I'd ever experienced: the cloud forest of Mindo.

Each year, travelers venture to this site for different reasons, including birdwatching, trekking, and river rafting. But we were seeking something in particular and very special: a rare species of anole that few have ever seen in person, known as the Pinocchio lizard.

Watch: The Rare Pinocchio Lizard of Ecuador

The cloud forest of Mindo is situated on the western slopes of the Andes and is home to a diversity of beautiful flora and fauna. During the day, we enjoyed an array of brightly colored hummingbirds and butterflies, but were unsuccessful at spotting the Pinocchio lizard. So we set out on our final night in the hopes of finding our enigmatic anole.

I'm not quite sure how he did it, but master Herpetologist Lucas Bustamante spotted the rare Pinocchio lizard during a night hike through the forest. This was no small feat, as this species of anole likes to hang out high in the canopy and has cryptic camouflage, meaning it blends in very well with the mossy branches and vegetation. Lucas, Jason and I then had to scale up a tree in the middle of the night in order to get close enough to film and photograph this incredible lizard.

The endangered Pinocchio lizard (Anolis proboscis) is found only in this region of cloud forest. The protrusion on the nose is mainly composed of cartilage and is used as a display for attracting females as well as defending territory against rival males

The endangered Pinocchio lizard (Anolis proboscis) is found only in this region of cloud forest. The protrusion on the nose is mainly composed of cartilage and is used as a display for attracting females as well as defending territory against rival males

The Pinocchio lizard in his natural environment, blending in amongst the leaves and mossy backdrop.

The Pinocchio lizard in his natural environment, blending in amongst the leaves and mossy backdrop.

Face to face with the incredible Pinocchio lizard. Such an amazing opportunity to see this rare animal!

Face to face with the incredible Pinocchio lizard. Such an amazing opportunity to see this rare animal!

For the past 50 years, the Pinocchio lizard was thought to be extinct, but was recently rediscovered at this location in Mindo. According to herpetologist Lucas Bustamante,

"After the rediscovery in 2005, some studies have been done from national and international universities, trying to understand the Pinocchio lizard's ecology and behavior. Even though, there is still much we need to know about this lizard...it is very important to raise awareness looking forward for his conservation."

We were very fortunate to track down a male during our short visit and report that the population is still present in the region. We hope that by sharing this amazing and endangered creature, we can also help to encourage the protection of the cloud forests of Ecuador so that future generations can experience this habitat along with the incredible endemic species within.

Thanks once more to Lucas Bustamante and the team at Tropical Herping for showing us around the fantastic Mindo Cloud Forest and to Destination Ecuador.

For more jungly updates you can follow along on Twitter & Instagram!

We Discovered & Published a New Butterfly Life History

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It was late 2014 when Phil Torres first showed me the photos from his recent trip to the Peruvian Amazon. Among them were amazing images of the tropical wildlife, from brilliant macaws to elusive pumas. But there were a few critters in that album that stood out to us in particular. Flipping through his camera, Phil said something to the effect of, "Check out this butterfly dude, it hangs out with ants on bamboo."

You can watch the video Phil and I put together on this discovery

After Phil showed me a few more photos, it was clear that this butterfly-ant interaction was not due to chance...something was going on here.

Multiple butterflies (both male and female) gathering on a bamboo stalk in the presence of ants.

Up-close shot of the butterflies and ants feeding from the sap secretions emitting from the bamboo shoot.

Phil and I both have backgrounds in entomology, and yet we had never seen anything like this before. I mean sure, we knew that some butterfly larvae have symbiotic relationships with ants, known as myrmecophily. This is well documented, as many of the caterpillars that associate with ants have special organs that secrete sugars and amino acids. The ants get a sugary nutritious meal from the caterpillars and, in return, the fragile caterpillars get personal ant bodyguards which defend against predators and parasites. But this is not the case for the adult butterflies, which usually have to evade ants, lest they become their next meal.

One more thing, Phil said, "Look at the three red spots on the butterfly wing. Kind of looks like the ants they're with on the bamboo. Maybe it's some sort of mimicry."

Alright, now I was really interested. The butterfly appears to be a known species, Adelotypa annulifera, but these pictures could be revealing an undocumented observation for this butterfly interacting with ants and a potentially new wing-mimicry pattern. Super cool, I thought, but there was just one problem: we know little about this butterfly beyond some dead pinned specimens. What is its life cycle? Where do the larvae develop? What do the larvae even look like? In other words, next to nothing was known about the life history of this butterfly. So to solve this mystery, Phil and I decided to collaborate. I was making a return trip to this exact field site in the coming months, so I set out to uncover the missing pieces of this puzzle.

Overlook of the Tambopata River at our field site in Southeastern Peru.

Overlook of the Tambopata River at our field site in Southeastern Peru.

The challenge with this type of fieldwork is that the Amazon rainforest is very big, and the critters we are looking for are very small. Since Phil observed the butterflies on bamboo, I ventured out to the same habitat, a trek from the Tambopata Research Center. I recall the jungle seemed particularly hot, humid, rainy, and muddy during that expedition, but I was determined to find our caterpillars and butterflies.

After hours of hiking through the Peruvian Amazon and getting continuously soaked by rain downpours, I found myself in the bamboo forest where we knew our butterflies liked to hang out. After checking dozens of bamboo plants, things seemed futile, as I wasn't finding any signs of our butterflies of interest. But persistence is the key to field work. I then saw a young bamboo shoot poking out of the mud, and noticed a leaf near the base of the bamboo, close to the ground.

Bamboo stalk with a leaf wrapped around the shoot near the base of the plant.

Bamboo stalk with a leaf wrapped around the shoot near the base of the plant.

I pulled the leaf back and to my utter shock, found myself staring directly at two caterpillars nestled against the bamboo, and an agitated ant hovering over the Lepidoptera larvae. My heart was pounding - did I really just find our caterpillars in this vast rainforest!? Clearly they were myrmecophilous, as the ant was trying to protect them.

First observation of the caterpillars with an ant bodyguard.

First observation of the caterpillars with an ant bodyguard.

Although excited from the find, I knew the job wasn't done. This could be any species of caterpillar, so I knew I had to watch them turn into pupae and finally into adults in order to truly confirm that these belonged to the same butterfly species. I continuously checked up on the caterpillars at this spot and took numerous photos and video. After a couple of days, I found our little critters in the same location, but this time they had transformed into pupae! At this point, I gently collected them and brought them to a small insect cage at the Tambopata Research Center to see if they would emerge as butterflies. I had my fingers crossed, hopefully they would survive to adulthood.

The caterpillars later turned into pupae.

The caterpillars later turned into pupae.

Fast forward, and one day I walked past the little insect cage when I noticed some activity. Wings fluttering. One of the pupae had successfully eclosed! So the moment of truth, what butterfly was it? My jaw dropped when I noticed it was, in fact, the same butterfly (Adelotypa annulifera) that Phil had taken pictures of previously. What this means is, we had just completed the entire life cycle of the butterfly, from egg to larvae to pupae, and finally adult. We now felt that we had enough material to write this up as an official scientific publication.

Figure 1 from the publication, the immature life stages of the butterfly and their association with ants. (A) Eggs with Megalomyrmex ant, (B) First instar larva with Ectatomma tuberculatum ant (C) Mid-instar larva with Pheidole ant (D) Mid-instar larvae with bullet ants (E) Final instar larva with E. tuberculatum ant (E) Pupae.

Figure 1 from the publication, the immature life stages of the butterfly and their association with ants. (A) Eggs with Megalomyrmex ant, (B) First instar larva with Ectatomma tuberculatum ant (C) Mid-instar larva with Pheidole ant (D) Mid-instar larvae with bullet ants (E) Final instar larva with E. tuberculatum ant (E) Pupae.

Figure 2. Dorsal (left) and lateral (right) views of early instar caterpillar.

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 3. Final instar larva (left) and pupa (right).

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 4. Adult Adelotypa annulifera interactions with ants on bamboo. (A) Ants touching the butterfly wings with antennae. (B) Ant crawling on butterfly wing. (C) Ants touching butterfly abdomen. (D-E) Butterflies and ants utilizing extrafloral nectary resources on bamboo. (F) Butterfly drinking bamboo fluid from the ant.

Figure 4. Adult Adelotypa annulifera interactions with ants on bamboo. (A) Ants touching the butterfly wings with antennae. (B) Ant crawling on butterfly wing. (C) Ants touching butterfly abdomen. (D-E) Butterflies and ants utilizing extrafloral nectary resources on bamboo. (F) Butterfly drinking bamboo fluid from the ant.

Figure 5. The butterflies and their putative wing pattern mimicry. (A) male butterfly (left) and female butterfly (right) perched on bamboo shoot in presence of red ants. Views of the wing pattern (B) ventral (C) dorsal and (D) lateral.

Overall, it was really exciting collaborating with Phil to discover and publish this life history, which is completely new for this genus of butterflies. In addition, we think the fact that butterflies steal a resource from the ants and let the ants crawl all over them indicates that some complex chemical signaling is going on. Perhaps the butterflies are utilizing a pheromone from their larval stage, potentially allowing the butterfly to take advantage of the ants, which would normally tear a fragile butterfly to shreds. The three red spots on the butterfly wing also look strikingly like the red ants (at least to us) and perhaps serve as a form of mimicry (if a butterfly looks like red ants that bite and sting, a bird may be less inclined to eat it). However, it should be noted that these are just our hypotheses at the moment and, like any hypothesis, should be rigorously tested before we can claim to back it up. We hope to do so, because there most certainly seems to be more to this incredible tropical butterfly than meets the eyes. Stay tuned...

Phil and I enjoying a boat ride along the river in the Amazon rainforest.

For more info, you can download the PDF here: Torres_Pomerantz_Adelotypa_Publication_2016

One more fun fact: it was actually during this trip that I accidentally discovered a totally new, yet unrelated, butterfly-ant relationship. The jungle is full of endless surprises -

[embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z1a4zIjo3uU[/embed]

Mystery of the Yellow Bulbs, video and blog post http://blog.perunature.com/2015/11/mystery-of-yellow-bulbs-discovery-of.html

-Aaron

My Instagram: @NextGenScientist & Twitter: @AaronPomerantz

Phil's Instagram: @phil_torres & Twitter: @phil_torres

In the Field: Macro Photography, Microscopy & How Butterflies Create Color

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Working in the Amazon rainforest has its challenges. To name an obvious one, it can be difficult to take equipment into remote field sites in order to conduct research. Fortunately, we live in an exciting time, as technology is rapidly becoming simultaneously cheaper and more portable. In this post, I want to share a couple tools that I use to document small organisms in the rainforest, including the wing structures of butterflies and moths, as well as discuss the fascinating ways that biology creates color.

Macro shot of a Heliconius butterfly wing. The different colors (oranges, yellows, blacks) are caused by pigment production in each individual scale. MP-E65mm, ƒ/11.0, 1/125, ISO 200.

Macro shot of a Heliconius butterfly wing. The different colors (oranges, yellows, blacks) are caused by pigment production in each individual scale. MP-E65mm, ƒ/11.0, 1/125, ISO 200.

For starters, digital SLR cameras and macro lenses are powerful handheld tools that I use to document the biological diversity of tiny creatures that inhabit South America. I'm currently using a Canon 70D camera body equipped with the shockingly powerful MP-E 65 Macro lens. This lens is truly a macro beast, magnifying up to 5 times (aka a magnification ratio of 5:1) and allows me to get sharp images of microscopic structures, such as butterfly wing scales. For shots of the whole organism, I typically use the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L macro lens, which I really love for its versatility and sharpness. In combination, the 100mm and MP-E 65 are a fantastic combination for macro photography in the field, allowing me to document small organisms such as insects, as well as zoom-in even closer to resolve  specific regions.

Here's a video explaining how these butterflies create color & using the Foldscope to investigate scale structures.

At our remote outpost in Sumaco, Ecuador, tinkering with my camera to photograph insects and butterfly wing scales.

At our remote outpost in Sumaco, Ecuador, tinkering with my camera to photograph insects and butterfly wing scales.

s an entomologist in the Amazon, I've been able to study a broad range of fascinating creatures, from Glowing Worms to Tentacled Caterpillars. More recently, I've become enthralled by the wings of butterflies and moths, and more specifically am curious about how these organisms produce such an incredible array of colors.

Macro of a Morpho wing, note the blue scales which do not contain any blue pigment. They contain nanostructures that bounce light back at the blue wavelength, a form of 'structural color'.

Macro of a Morpho wing, note the blue scales which do not contain any blue pigment. They contain nanostructures that bounce light back at the blue wavelength, a form of 'structural color'.

Butterflies and moths belong to the order Lepidoptera and all members have scales covering their bodies and wings (in Latin, lepis means scale and ptera means wing). With over 180,000 described species, the Lepidoptera are not only diverse in their numbers but also in their colors. Their color arises due to the nature of the scales that they produce and can be due to pigmentation as well as structural color. Whatever the origin, color results from an interaction between light and matter.

Like beautiful painted tiles, the scales on this Phantom butterfly range from shades of pink to entirely transparent. MP-E65mm, ƒ/11.0, 1/125, ISO 200.

Like beautiful painted tiles, the scales on this Phantom butterfly range from shades of pink to entirely transparent. MP-E65mm, ƒ/11.0, 1/125, ISO 200.

Owl Butterflies mating. The large eye spot on the hindwing is thought to startle potential predators like birds, a form of Batesian mimicry in which a harmless organism acquires protection by resembling a threatening animal. 

Owl Butterflies mating. The large eye spot on the hindwing is thought to startle potential predators like birds, a form of Batesian mimicry in which a harmless organism acquires protection by resembling a threatening animal. 

But even with the best macro lenses, it's still tough to resolve the scale structures on the wings of these insects. To get really close, we need to get into microscopy. But any of us familiar with using a microscope know that they are big, cumbersome, expensive pieces of equipment - not exactly compatible with field work. However, last year I came across an ingenious invention by a lab at Stanford, the Foldscope (an origami foldable microscope that costs about one dollar).

Some of the tools in my "mobile lab" kit: a foldable microscope, a DSLR camera with macro lens, a handheld gene sequencer, and my mobile phone.

Some of the tools in my "mobile lab" kit: a foldable microscope, a DSLR camera with macro lens, a handheld gene sequencer, and my mobile phone.

In the past I've posted about using the Foldscope to investigate small critters in the Amazon, but I've recently started using it to look at butterfly and moth wing scales, and it actually does a fantastic job.

An Amber Phantom butterfly with transparent wings. Combining macro photography and the Foldscope, allowing us to see the different scale structures that make up the colored and transparent regions of the wing.

An Amber Phantom butterfly with transparent wings. Combining macro photography and the Foldscope, allowing us to see the different scale structures that make up the colored and transparent regions of the wing.

Here is a dirunal moth in the family Uraniidae, notice how the scales that appeared green shift to a violet/purple color under the Foldscope. I imagine that the colored scales have microstructures that produce green wavelengths under normal sunlight conditions and changing the incoming light in the microscope has shifted the wavelength output. This is the reason Morpho butterflies appear iridescent blue, due to the structure of their nanoscales (called mullions).

Compilation of butterfly wing scales through macro photography and Foldscope microscopy, all taken while in the field in the Amazon Rainforest.

Compilation of butterfly wing scales through macro photography and Foldscope microscopy, all taken while in the field in the Amazon Rainforest.

Hope you enjoyed, you can check out more updates via Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube!

-Aaron