Collaboration: Tuning into the largest butterfly in Africa

Trying to save a species you know nothing about is difficult, that's why this researcher will use tracking devices.

The Giant African Swallowtail is somewhat of an enigma. We know little about it except a few key facts: It’s one of the largest butterflies in the world, with red and brown wings that span wider than an adult’s outstretched hand.  It can release a foul odor to drive away predators, and even kill them with a toxic chemical carried in their body. And the butterfly is also listed as 'data deficient' in IUCN’s redlist, which essentially means we don’t know enough to protect it from extinction.

This swallowtail is at risk because its natural environment is transforming into uninhabitable land. They live in the rainforests of Central and West Africa, which are diminishing each year because of commercial logging, road construction, and the overall demand for agricultural land. While it’s certain this damage is having an effect on the butterflies’ population, researchers are unsure at the rate it’s happening and how soon the species may be lost altogether. Szabolcs (Safi) Sáfián (University of West Hungary) is determined to not let this happen.

butterflySáfián wll gather information on the African Swallowtail with miniature radio transmitters. Frustrated by the current lack of knowledge, he will travel to Liberia next year (Ebola virus permitting) as part of his PhD research. Here, he will attach devices to the top of the butterflies’ bodies to track and monitor the species.

This technology will enable him to record the data critical to their survival.  “We currently don’t know how long the adult butterflies live or how far they can fly; and we have no idea about their pre-adult stages or larval food plant. A professionally designed radio tracking program can help us answer these questions,” he says. The first step will be to determine if Liberia’s East Nimba Nature Reserve is sufficient to protect the butterfly, which is known to hold the greatest population of the species. But it will be far from easy going.

Radio transmitters emit a very high frequency signal that can be tuned into to track and monitor the butterflies in real-time. However, Liberia’s mountainous terrain, the tropical cover of the rainforest and the long distances the butterflies can travel may all add complications.

It’s the first time Sáfián will employ this technology. Aware of the added complications and unable to find the right information sources, he turned to the ResearchGate community for help. He asked a series of questions regarding how the technology can be best used, and researchers around the world and across disciplines soon responded.

One researcher told Sáfián about the benefits of permanent receiver stations and mobile units for tracking. Another scientist offered information on his experiment tracking Monarchs in Kansas with similar, aspirin-sized tracking technology. And yet another mentioned various sightings of Africa’s swallowtail in Cameroon. The researchers’ advice helped Sáfián learn more about the technology through various suggested studies, including how to gain a stronger signal for better tracking and data collection. He is now also planning a trip to Camaroon to investigate the behavior of swallowtails there.

Sáfián hopes this project will become a model for other animals in the area: “I really feel like a pioneer with our project, not only because of the technology used in an ecological study, but because we’re using a butterfly as a flagship species for research and conservation in Africa.” It could, for example, open the door for tracking and monitoring other endangered species reliant on the same environment, including one of the world’s largest insects – the giant Goliathus beetle.

This story was also published in Newsweek. You can check it out here.

Photo courtesy of Andre Coetzer & Papilio Zalmoxis