Juan Guillermo Jaramillo Velasquez first took up digital photography of butterflies in Colombia because it was easier than photographing birds, but in a big part thanks to his efforts, Colombia now has the world’s biggest confirmed database of Lepidoptera, the order of insects that includes butterflies and moths.
Colombia is the world’s most biodiverse country for birds, spawning guidebooks and a growing bird tourism industry, but until recent years, comparatively little was known about the butterflies and moths of Colombia.
Today, there are 3,642 species officially documented in the South American country and of these, over 200 are endemic, found only in Colombia. This is in no small part to the efforts of Jaramillo, American photographer Kim Garwood and Colombian biologists Cristóbal Ríos and Blanca Huertas to develop a butterfly database.
“Its like a telephone directory with the names of butterflies,” Jaramillo says, adding that the guide is now electronic and can be downloaded to a smart phone.
“Since the 1800s, naturalists have been gathering data and specimens,” he says, “So the information was there but it was in museums, books, all spread out.”
This isn’t just an academic pursuit, by photographing and classifying butterfly species from all over Colombia, conservation efforts are boosted.
“You can only conserve what you know about,” he says, “If we can say to the authorities, here’s a list, now you know what you have, they can take better care of them.”
From Agronomy to Birds to Butterflies
Jaramillo was born and raised in the Colombian city of Medellin, but his connection to nature started early, as his parents were both from small towns outside the city.
“As children, they took us out to the countryside and I became a fan of animals like toads and fish,” he says, “I even I had a little part of my room where I kept guppies and made cross-bred them.”
After high school, he studied agronomy in Honduras and then got a scholarship for a university in Florida.
“I studied agronomy was close to nature, but all my life I have loved insects,” he says, “Then I arrived back in Colombia and I was working for an animal feed company and it felt far away from nature.”
So he joined a birdwatching society and became interested in identifying and photographing birds.
“This was 25 years ago, this was way before eBird,” he says, referring to an app that people use now to document the bird species.
“We started to register bird species by recording them in a database,” he says.
When digital photography arrived, he switched to photographing butterflies because they were so varied — and easier to snap than birds were.
“I wanted to document the butterflies, but there were no guidebooks or databases for these insects,” he says, adding that a chance encounter with Kim Garwood lead him down the path to help put together what is the biggest national list of confirmed butterflies in the world.
Jaramillo says another contrast with birds is that butterflies do migrate, but not in the same way.
“Butterflies don’t migrate like birds or whales, its done on a population level” he says, “For example, the individual Monarch butterflies that leave Kansas and go to Mexico aren’t the same ones that return to Kansas.”
Another Colombian butterfly expert is Carolina Pardo-Diaz, Director of the Department of Biology at the Universidad del Rosario in Bogota, Colombia.
She and her team have explored the genes of butterflies that use mimicry.