Long Term Monitoring of Lepidoptera in the Bahamas

Since 1980, Jacqueline Miller has been monitoring butterfly populations in the West Indies and especially in the Bahamas. Through field work with her late husband, Lee, and others, seven new taxa were described and six new records discovered in the Bahamas alone. Studying insular faunas and completing comparative analyses of the species recorded presents some interesting challenges. The origin of the fauna and flora of the Caribbean Basin is very complex due to the historical geology of this area and has changed and evolved over time (Smith, et al., 1994). From the Eocene on, the proto-Greater Antilles was formed during a very complex sequence of fragmentation and accretion while the origin of the Lesser Antilles developed as a separate volcanic arc. There is geological evidence that Cuba overrode the Bahamas rise during the mid-Tertiary and the distribution of Lepidoptera in the Bahamas reflects this today.

Since Lepidoptera are readily subject to wind dispersal, the faunal list for a particular island may change from one year to the next due to hurricanes or other environmental factors. Thus, there is major potential for species turnover, and environmental conditions may alter, and have much more of a marked effect on, species abundance. Since 2005, the weather patterns in the Bahamas have been modified with a delay in the onset of summer rains and major decrease in annual precipitation. Dr. Miller and her colleagues, Drs. Deborah Matthews, Mark J. Simon, and Gary Goss, are evaluating how Lepidoptera are adapting to these environmental changes. In addition, there has been more concern about invasive species in the Bahamas, especially in relation to Papilio demoleus, a widespread African and East Indian swallowtail, which was recorded in the Dominican Republic (Guerrero et al, 2004). Associated with citrus as a larva, populations of this species have subsequently been established on Jamaica and southwestern Puerto Rico. Dr. Miller observed several specimens on North Andros, Bahamas, in 2007, but this species has not been observed subsequently nor voucher specimens collected.

There are more than 238 butterfly species (563 taxa) represented in the West Indies, with nearly 70 represented in the Bahamas alone. Some species are widely distributed throughout south Florida, Bahamas, and in the Greater Antilles, especially Cuba. For example, the nominate swallowtail subspecies, Heraclides a. aristodemus was originally described from Puerto Rico, but two other subspecies ( H. a. majasi and H. a. bjorndalae ) occur in the Bahamas, H. a. temenes in Cuba and Little Cayman island, and with H. a. ponceanus in south Florida. More recently, a population of Aphrissa neleis, a pierid species thought to be restricted to Cuba and the Bahamas, was found to have been recorded and has been a resident in Miami since 1982 (Warren & Calhoun, 2012).

Other species are endemic to, and found only on, Cuba and the Bahamas. These include the very distinctive swallowtail, Battus devilliers, and the only riodinid in the West Indies, Dianesia carteri, is found in the Bahamas, with D. carteri ramsdeni occurring in Cuba. The skipper, Burca concolor, is also shared between Cuba and the Bahamas, with B. c. atrata in the Bahamas.

Our surveys have been expanded to include moths since 2000, and more recently we have focused on the Microlepidoptera in the Bahamas for comparative studies among the Greater Antilles, south Florida and the Caribbean Basin. Studies of the Lepidoptera in the Caribbean offer unique opportunities to learn not only more about geographical representation present but also the evolutionary history of the area.

References Cited:

Guerro, K. A., D. Veloz, S. L. Bioyce, and B. D. Farrell. 2004. First New World Documentation of an Old World Citrus Pest, the Lime Swallowtail, Papilio demoleus (Lepidoptera: Papilionidae), in the Dominican Republic (Hispaniola). American Entomologist, 50(4): 227-229.

Smith, D. A., L. D. Miller, and J. Y. Miller. 1994. The Butterflies of the West Indies and South Florida. Oxford University Press, Oxford, England, 264pp., 32 pl.

Warren, A., and J. Calhoun. 2012. A Treasure Hidden in Plain Sight: Aphrissa neleis is a resident in Southern Florida, USA (Lepidoptera: Pieridae: Coliadinae). News of the Lepidopterists' Society, 55(4): 133-134.