Teachers as Researchers: Heliconia Survey

Field Notes From the Amazon

Amazon Research Initiative for Educators

Field Report: 2023 Heliconia & Herbivory Survey

Date: July 12 – 19, 2023
Location: Explorama’s Napo-Sucusari Biological Reserve, Loreto Peru
Study Sites: The Amazon Conservatory for Tropical Studies (ACTS) Quebrada Grande river trail. Rio Napo riverbank.
Lead Researcher: Dr. Robert Naczi
Team Members: Madelyn Beitler*, Marissa Copan, Christa Dillabaugh, Cesar Guerra, Roldan Hidalgo, Shannon King, Mike MacAloon, Garly Pashanaste, Kathy Richardson, Nancy Trautmann, Terry Wilson. (*author of this report)


During this research experience, we examined several species of Heliconia plants in multiple locations in the Amazon rainforest of Peru. This research was part of the pilot of the ARIE program through the Morpho Institute. The overall goal of this research is to ultimately allow teachers to contribute to the long-term data sets of the Morpho Institute, which will be used to monitor changes to biodiversity and act as a body of information available for teachers’ use in their classrooms.

Heliconia is a genus of herbs only sparsely documented in this region of Peru. There is still much to be documented and observed about the flowering and leafing phenology, as well as the patterns of herbivory on these plants. Heliconia species (hereafter “heliconia”) are particularly interesting since they host several genera of leaf beetles (Chrysomelidae) that have been observed as herbivores in the leaf furls of these plants.

The purposes of this project were to begin a foundational survey of heliconia in this specific region of Peru, locate and map heliconia colonies in the vicinity of the ACTS field station, begin to document heliconia flowering and leafing phenology, and document diversity of beetle species found within the leaf furls (unrolling leaf buds) and sometimes in inflorescences (clusters of flowers).

Materials and Methods
We surveyed heliconia patches near ACTS field station along river trail and along the Napo River. We first identified several larger patches of heliconia in which we could survey and document several individual plants. In our research we focused on two main goals with each plant: first, documenting the leafing and flowering phenology, and second collecting the specimens found within the leaf furls.

To document the leafing and flowering phenology we noted the patch location with latitude and longitude data points. Next, we measured the size of each patch (length, width, area). Then, we noted the leaf morphology including the size of largest blade, leaf color, signs of herbivory, and inflorescence.

Figure 1. Inspecting heliconia inflorescence for herbivorous leaf beetles (Chrysomelidae)

To collect the specimens within the leaf furls, we identified which leaf furls were approximately half “unfurled,” then cut them off of the plant. We then unfurled the leaf carefully, as not to miss any possible specimens. As we unfurled the leaf, we collected any specimens revealed by placing them in a plastic bag and labeling the bag with the location and time for future processing.

Figure 2: Unfurling heliconia leaves along the ACTS river trail

We located three colonies of heliconia in the vicinity of the ACTS field station (Table 1, Map 1). All three were Heliconia velutina.

Table 1. Heliconia Colonies Located and Studied near ACTS field station in July 2023.

3-3.25328-72.91248largest colony; hosted many beetles
Map 1: Locations of heliconia colonies near ACTS field station located in 2023. Map based on ArcGis (arcgis.com).

In addition, we were able to locate and briefly study two other species of Heliconia, H. episcopalis and H. stricta, along the Napo River.

During this project, we collected 64 specimens from three different species of heliconia. Heliconia stricta hosted two species, Heliconia episcopalis hosted two species, and Heliconia velutina hosted six species. Seven different species were identified in total. Pictured below are the processed specimens from our project. and the identifications and summary data table (Table 2).

Figure 3:  Specimens collected from heliconia plants.

Table 2:  Summary data table of heliconia and leaf beetle species.

 Heliconia strictaHeliconia episcopalisHeliconia velutina
Locationalong Napo Riveralong Napo Rivernear ACTS field station, along river trail
Cephaloleia clarkella1110
Cephaloleia erichsonii0036
Cephaloleia grayei002
Cephaloleia princeps005
Cephaloleia proxima001
Nympharescus sp. 1101
Nympharescus sp. 2042
TOTAL herbivorous beetle species/Heliconia species226
TOTAL herbivorous beetle individuals/Heliconia species12547

Discussion: Next Steps
Our research is an important beginning to the process of documenting and understanding these species in the area surrounding the ACTS field station. Both the genera of leaf beetles collected and the heliconia plants themselves have previously not been studied, and the ongoing survey of these plants and herbivores will add greatly to the understanding of heliconia as a whole, as well as the herbivorous leaf beetles. It is important that this work continues to be done in this region of Peru, as our research is only the beginning of documenting and understanding the patterns of heliconia leafing and flowering phenology, herbivory, and species found within. As this foundational research is fortified, changes may then be observed over time and correlated to various environmental characteristics adding to our understanding of the impact of climate change and other environmental impacts in the future.

For additional information or questions about this field report, please contact Dr. Lindsey Swierk (lindsey.swierk@actsperu.org), Director of Scientific Research for The Morpho Institute and Associate Director of Research for the Amazon Conservatory for Tropical Studies. 

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