Ghana Butterfly Biodiversity Project  
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Background Information
Aterica sp., female

Why are scientific studies of Ghana's biodiversity needed?

Ghana's forests are recognized as among the most depleted and fragmented in the world. Less than 15% of original forest cover remains and this is under significant threat.  Illegal logging is widespread and blatant and pressures from mining interests are significant, including within the boundaries of existing forest reserves.  Rural communities continue to rely heavily on forest products, and forest reserves show ever more damage from internal degradation and encroachment by local village farmers.

In general, the Afrotropics have not inspired the same concerted research attention as their Neotropical and Indo-Malayan counterparts.  Studies of ecosystems in Africa are few and the western section of the continent has been particularly neglected.  This pervasive knowledge gap hinders efforts to mitigate the impact of human activities on the unique ecosystems of West Africa and the species they harbor.

Why are sacred forest groves important?

In Ghana, sacred groves constitute the bulk of the 1% of forest that remains outside existing forest reserves.  Sacred groves are indigenous reserves that have been strictly protected, in some cases for centuries, because of their spiritual and cultural significance.  Originally, these sacred lands were embedded in large continuous blocks of forest.  Now they dot the landscape as highly isolated relict patches of forest surrounded by man-made savanna and developed areas.  These long-protected patches of forest are likely to count as important refugia for forest specialists, nuclei for ecosystem recovery, and stepping stones that help link the widely scattered forest reserves.

The traditional respect that has served to protect sacred forest groves is rapidly disappearing.  Many of these long-protected indigenous reserves are highly degraded and in imminent threat of complete destruction.  Scientific study of sacred groves heightens public and governmental awareness and this increased attention can help prevent their loss.

Why study butterflies?

Butterflies are excellent models for evaluating the status of natural communities in degraded landscapes, especially where knowledge is needed to help steer conservation efforts in the survey area.  They show a wide range of sensitivity to environmental change, are tightly intertwined with ecological systems as both consumers and food items, and are easily collected and identified.  They are also showy and charismatic and can elicit the emotional concern necessary to bring about conservation action in the face of conflicting socioeconomic priorities.

We are far from understanding butterfly diversity of West Africa.  Much of what is currently known has been summarized by Dr. Torben Larsen in preparation for his recently published book, Butterflies of West Africa.  Approximately 900 butterfly species occur in Ghana and an estimated 5% have yet to be discovered.  From the perspective of natural histories, relative abundances, species' associations, and community dynamics in fragmented landscapes, so few empirical data exist that nearly all information collected represents new discovery.


Euphaedra eupalus
Project Summary

The
Ghana Butterfly Biodiversity Project is part of an intended ongoing study of the butterfly fauna of West Africa. The primary goal of this core project is to document all butterfly species occurring in Ghana and their population status and natural histories, and to establish the impact of forest fragmentation and depletion on forest butterfly communities.  Field activities associated with the initial 3-year project centered on systematic, yearlong inventories of the fruit-feeding butterflies at two forest reserves and five sacred groves located in the moist semi-deciduous forest zone.  Much in-country field effort was also devoted to intensive 'spot' surveys of understudied forest reserves in the wet evergreen and moist evergreen forest zones, and the compilation of information on species' biology, with an emphasis on caterpillar 'search and rear' efforts.

The
Ghana Butterfly Biodiversity Project has been a collaboration between multiple countries, institutions, professionals, and scientific disciplines and has included a significant educational and training component.


Project Goals
  • Compile spatial and temporal inventory and natural history data to narrow the knowledge gap that currently exists for forest butterflies of Ghana.
  • Investigate how forest fragmentation impacts communities of forest-dependent butterfly species.
  • Database and collate all information and images on an online searchable website to ensure broad availability of project products.
  • Establish a molecular 'barcode' library of adult vouchered mtDNA sequences for species collected in the study and a molecular 'repository' for future research.
  • Work with host-country scientists and governmental officials to solidify a permanent repository of biotic resources in the host country.
  • Provide professional and educational opportunities for U.S. and Ghanaian scientists, citizens, and students.
  • Generate a reference framework for future analytical research in molecular biology, ecology, evolution and systematics.
Justification

The upper Guinean forests of Ghana are recognized as among the most biologically unique in the world because they harbor a wide diversity of plant and animal species, many of which are found nowhere else.  But these are also among the most critically threatened forests in the world.  Only about 10-15% of original forest cover has not been destroyed and what remains is highly fragmented and degraded.  With the exception of sacred forest groves, virtually no forest cover remains outside the boundaries of designated reserves.

Mitigating the threats to these ecosystems and the species they harbor is difficult because these forests are also among the least studied and ecologically understood in the world.  Given the widespread extent of human impacts, we risk losing species that haven't yet been discovered.  Scientific data are necessary to establish the current status of forest-dependent species, key threats to their long-term persistence, and to help guide protective legislation and strategies for forest restoration.


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