This Colombian is the guardian of the largest collection of butterflies in the world. Meet Blanca Huertas – KESQ

Melissa Velasquez Loaiza

(CNN) – Butterflies. Blanca Huertas’s passion is butterflies. She claims to be “fascinated” with them, because behind each species there is a different story.

They are not few stories, because in the world there are 20,000 species of butterflies. There are yellow, black, brown, blue with green, violet, black with orange and any combination that one can imagine. There are large, medium, small, tiny. They are an infinity.

A small part of this infinity of Lepidoptera – as this species is scientifically called – is in the Natural History Museum in London. And she is 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 began at a very young age. She says that when she was a child she went out with her family for walks in the countryside and there she had her first encounters with these animals.

“We have always been a very family to go to the countryside walking in the mountains, to visit hot areas of Colombia. Obviously that influenced my taste for butterflies a lot, ”Huertas told CNN.

Colombian Blanca Huertas is the senior curator of the butterfly collection at the Natural History Museum in London. (Credit: Natural History Museum, London)

So he decided to study Biology and then did a specialization in Environmental Management and Education at two public universities in Bogotá 20 years ago. In principle, he says, he had to make his own meshes, use a lot of “trinkets” to catch butterflies and use household materials, “all very handmade,” he explains, to study these insects.

“If I collected 2,000 specimens of other insects at the university, for example, each label that each of those specimens had had to write them by hand,” he recalls.

After doing a master’s degree in Systematics and Biodiversity at Imperial College London, and later a Ph.D. at University College of London, Huertas says that the most important thing is the world that was opened to him by studying these animals. He explains that by 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 equal to the other.

Why do I like butterflies so much? Obviously, they draw our attention because of their beauty and because of that fragility that they have, that complexity, ”he says. “They are very interesting to understand the diversity of the world. Behind the whole history of butterflies, you can understand all the problems and questions in biology. “

But not everything is related to them is as elegant as their appearance.

“Butterflies are pretty, they are very elegant, but there are butterflies that feed, for example, on excrement. That is one thing that shocks people, ”he says. “Too [hay mariposas que] they eat fish, dead fish in the rivers… not only the sweet nectar of the flowers ”.

The curator of the largest and oldest collection of butterflies

Blanca Huertas – known as’ Madame Butterfly ‘,’ Dra. Butterfly ‘, or the’ Keeper of the butterflies’ – has worked for 15 years at the Natural History Museum in London.

“Obviously, getting this position has been the dream of anyone who studies 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.

Colombian Blanca Huertas is the senior curator of the butterfly collection at the Natural History Museum in London. (Credit: Natural History Museum, London)

Behind her, she points to giant cabinets containing five million copies of butterflies from around the world. Some 40,000 boxes – which must be kept at about 14 degrees Celsius to prevent the butterflies from being damaged – that he methodically studies to discover new things from time to time. No wonder: this collection has butterflies collected from the 1600s to the present.

“Whenever I open a box I am distracted or find something new, a new species, something strange, something I have never seen. So it is fascinating to work on the collection, but it is also fascinating, as I was saying, meeting other scientists, listening to their work, helping with their work ”, he says, smiling. Always smiling.

But also always “behind the roses there are thorns”, he tells us when talking about the difficulties of his work. As he explains, it is a task that never ends, because his projects, no matter how small, take months, or even, to complete.

The study of butterflies still has a long way to go, because even though 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 have in the museum are only a part of the great global diversity.

“This collection that is so big that everything you do is going to take a lot of time, you need a lot of effort, work,” he says. “So you can stay here every day if you want, but you always have this feeling that you haven’t finished things… important things.”

The Natural History Museum in London has a collection of 5 million specimens of butterflies collected from the 1600s to the present day. (Credit: NHM London Museum)

Colombia, the country with the most species of butterflies in the world

It is no coincidence that Huertas, born in Colombia, developed her love and early research for Lepidoptera in her native country, as this 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 Natural History Museum in London.

“The butterfly fauna of Colombia is one of the most diverse and possibly the most complex of any country on earth,” reads the introduction to the book Butterflies of Colombia. Checklist, in which the titanic work of studying this species in Colombia was captured.

“In Colombia we didn’t even know exactly which species of butterflies were flying until we published the book this year,” Huertas told CNN.

“So once we have that information, now we can go to see which ones are extinct or which ones are no longer within their natural habitats at this point in history.”

To put Colombia in perspective as the 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 have been found throughout the African continent. In Colombia alone there are just over 3,600 species of butterflies.

The team of researchers from the butterfly collection at the Natural History Museum, London. (Credit: NHM London Museum)

“More than 200 species of butterflies on the checklist are unique to Colombia and are not found anywhere else in the world, so if we lose them there is no backup population and they disappear forever,” Huertas said.

But environmental problems also have them in danger, according to Huertas.

“The region in which we have the most problems with deforestation, with the lack of capacity to study species, is where we have the greatest diversity,” says the expert.

The yellow butterflies of Gabriel García Márquez

Gabriel García Márquez, the Colombian Nobel Prize winner for Literature, immortalized yellow butterflies in his work, especially in One Hundred Years of Solitude. (Credit: OMAR TORRES / AFP via Getty Images)

These insects are also part of the literary culture of the country. The yellow butterflies are a figure associated with the Nobel Prize for Literature in Colombia, 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 the 1800s in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. This specimen only lived for almost 100 years – 99 exactly – in the collection of the Natural History Museum in London.

The article on the discovery of this specimen is called like this: One Hundred Years of Solitude: The Rediscovery of the Catasticta lycurgus, a yellow butterfly from the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. This in honor of those yellow butterflies and García Márquez.

A group of researchers went to look for this species in the Colombian Sierra and found it: “It is good news. That butterfly is rare, but it is not extinct. “

For now, Blanca Huertas continues in her titanic work of conserving and studying butterflies, and invites the public to visit these exhibitions.

“If there is no public, there is no interest, and it is very important that ordinary people are also interested in butterflies because they are very important for the ecosystem,” he points out.

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This Colombian is the guardian of the largest collection of butterflies in the world. Meet Blanca Huertas – KESQ