Wildlife at Machu Picchu

About a year ago, my partner and I were in Peru finishing up a four-day trek to Machu Picchu. I had always wanted to travel in South America and I finally had a chance, between graduating and starting a career. We were in Peru for about a month traveling all over, but this post will focus on our trek to Machu Picchu and the wildlife we encountered along the way.

We began in Cusco, the launching pad for the Andean treks and visits to the Sacred Valley. Cusco is at an elevation of ~3000m above sea level, compared to the ~70m in southern Ontario. Going from 70m to 3000m in altitude very quickly can take its toll. I felt tired, nauseous and had a pounding headache. It took us a few days to acclimatize before we set off on our trek.

Cusco's Plaza de Armas
Cusco’s Plaza de Armas

There are a few different treks that can be done in the area. We chose to do the Salkantay trek, instead of the classic Inca trek, because this route would take us through a diversity of Peruvian landscapes and also ended at Machu Picchu.

Our tour guide, Antony from Andean Expeditions, was very knowledgeable about the local wildlife. He could say something about almost all the plants and animals I asked about. He quickly learned that I love chasing butterflies and that Toby is obsessed with bats.

The first day consisted of a two-hour drive along windy roads before we got to the starting point, which did not sit well with me as I am prone to motion sickness. We started our hike at ~3000m and ascended to ~3800 the first day. The landscape reminded me of the alpine region of the Yukon; not too many trees, lots of low shrubs, but a lot more biodiversity. As we approached the camp, we could see the mighty Salkantay Mountain.


The one plant I could confidently identify, lupine.
The one plant I could confidently identify, lupine.
The mighty Salkantay in the distance.

The next day was the hardest; we were hiking to the Salkantay Pass at an altitude of 4630m. It was a more rocky and steep up climb. Switch-backs are very common and I suppose it makes it ‘easier’ to hike uphill, but it is very daunting to look at the road ahead. We spent some time at the pass, learned about the Peruvian culture and made an offering to Pachamama (Mother Earth). Then it was all down hill from there, literally. We descended to 2800m and the landscape quickly changed from a rocky, barren one to a luscious forest.

Day 2 (1)

Switch-back to get to the Salkantay pass.
Day 2 (2)
We finally made it to the pass! We made an offering of coca leaves to Pachamama.
A short while later, we were in the clouded forest.

I find it easy to get distracted by my surroundings on hikes and in a place like the clouded forest it was even more difficult to just focus on getting to the campsite. Oh look a butterfly! Was that rustling in the grass a snake? There was so much to see, and yet most people were keen to just get from one campsite to the next. A few times I found butterflies puddling on the ground and I had to get a better look and take pictures, which apparently seemed odd to other hikers.

Day 3 (2)

Altinote sp.

Day 3 (1)

The next day we hiked mostly along a dirt road continuing through the clouded rainforest. We saw lots more butterflies: owl butterflies, Chorinea species with transparent wings, and some that I thought were Heliconius species, or closely related. We also came across an injured hummingbird and a dead snake on the road. That afternoon, once we arrived at the campsite, we visited a hotsprings nearby. The warm soak was much needed after all that hiking.

Chorinea sylphina
An injured humming bird we found on the road.
Poor snake got hit on the road.
Day 4(1)
I haven’t been able to identify this species…
One of may orchids we saw.
One of may orchids we saw.


The next day, instead of continuing the hike as planned, we opted to go zip-lining in the morning and get dropped off at a later point to continue the hike. It felt a little bit like cheating by not hiking the planned route, but it was difficult to turn down the opportunity. I had gone zip-lining before, but nothing like this! We did a total of six zip-lines that were ~300m high. On some zip-lines we were allowed to try different positions, for example the ‘Spiderman’ where you hang upside down.


A skipper I found while waiting my turn, Urbanus sp.
The spiderman

After zip-lining, we continued hiking along a railway to Aguas Clientas, the town just out side of Machu Picchu. Antony suggested we visit a Casa de Mariposa (Butterfly House), a research facility that is learning about the diversity of butterflies in Machu Picchu. A large portion of butterfly species in Machu Picchu is unknown. Here, they rear butterflies just to find out what they are. The enclosure they have has openings so butterflies are free to escape. There were a few recognizable families.

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The caterpillar of the owl butterfly, Caligo sp.
A swallowtail!
Some kind of sphinx moth.
A little white butterfly, maybe in the Pieridae family.

The next morning, we woke up at 4am to hike nearly 2000 stairs in the pouring rain to reach Machu Picchu. It’s a rush to the bridge where they let you cross to begin this hike up. It seemed like a never-ending staircase with uneven stairs and the added pressure of a crowd of people behind you trying to make it to the top first.

We finally made it and after a guided tour, we sadly parted ways with Antony and we were left to explore on our own. The weather began to clear. Machu Picchu is touristy, even in low-season, but for good reason. This place is a gem, unfinished and untouched by the Spanish invasion.

With our tour guide, Antony.

We wondered around for the whole day exploring the different areas. Along the way we found critters everywhere. On one occasion a snake was spotted on the path by another tourist, I was further back and Toby called to me. I got so excited I immediately caught the little snake, while the tourist gasped and was shocked that I would do so. Toby told her that we were biologists and that it isn’t unusual for me to do such a thing.

I think a rufus collared sparrow
Iguana, I think a spiny whorltail iguana
Adelpha sp.
Llama taking care of the over grown vegetation.
The snake I caught on the path.
The snake I caught on the path.

After exploring we hiked back down the near 2000 steps at a more leisurely pace and encouraging those we encountered making the hike up. The trek was challenging, but well worth it. Visiting Machu Picchu is one of the top wonders of the world and on many people’s bucket list, but along with the amazing ruins there’s plenty of wildlife to see.

The stairs we took compared to the road to get to Machu Picchu.




A Day in the Life of a Butterfly Ecologist

From my very first field experience in my 3rd year ecology class, I was hooked. Since then, I’ve been lucky to travel to some very remote places, and some less so, getting up close and personal with different species. There’s just something about field work that you won’t get from a book or a classroom. It’s taught me to be more observant and think about survival from the organisms’ perspective.  I was happy to be invited to write a post about some of my field experiences for Dispatches from the Field, a blog where field biologist can share their stories from the field. This post is also cross posted here.

When I tell people I did my Master’s working with butterflies I get a lot of different reactions. Among fellow biologists or naturalists there is a certain appreciation for a study species even if it may not be their species of choice. However, among the general public it is a different story. Butterflies, are they even animals?

Butterflies are indeed animals and there are a ton of reasons why butterflies make great study organisms. They are relatively easy to catch, handle and mostly easy to observe. Plus, butterflies are relatively short lived, which makes it easy to study them over many generations. Because of this, a number of butterfly populations around the world have been monitored for decades, resulting in work that has made major contributions to our understanding of population dynamics and conservation.

Part of my project was to assess the Eastern Tiger and the Spicebush Swallowtails’ movement relative to forest edges in the fragmented landscape of southern Ontario. Did they move towards the forest edge, avoid it or a bit of both? To learn about this we caught butterflies and released them at different distances from the edge and followed them using a GPS unit to record their movement.

Spicebush Swallowtail
Spicebush Swallowtail
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

Working on butterflies had a few benefits. They come out when it’s sunny and are active during the day. Swallowtails are some of the largest butterflies in Ontario, so they take longer to warm up. I didn’t expect to see many out before 10 am or after 5 pm. On a typical day, I rolled out of bed around 8:30 am, ate breakfast, and prepared my lunch. Eventually my field assistant would follow, we would pack the car and be on the road at 9:30 am. The main things to pack were butterfly nets, a cooler with ice packs and a towel, many glassine envelopes, a permanent marker, GPS unit, field guides, lots of sunscreen and water.

After arriving at a site, we would walk around with a net, sometimes up and down a road, through fields or along the forest edge looking for swallowtails. People often say to me, ‘I picture you frolicking in the fields catching butterflies’. Clearly, they have never gone butterfly catching before.

Sarah, my field assistant, and I pretending to frolic in the fields catching butterflies.
Sarah, my field assistant, and I pretending to frolic in the fields catching butterflies.

Catching butterflies is anything but graceful. In fact, some advice I was given before heading to the field was, ‘if you don’t look silly doing it, you’re not doing it right’. Truer words have never been spoken. Swallowtails are very strong fliers; they can fly high and fast. I couldn’t count the number of times a swallowtail has outflown me or made me run in circles. I have chased after falling leaves, fallen on my face, gotten scrapes and bruises, gone through poison ivy and swarms of deer flies and mosquitos all to get one more sample.

Through many failed attempts, I quickly learned the tricks of the trade. It is much easier to sneak up on swallowtails while they are on a flower feeding on nectar. However if you miss, there is about a 30 second window for you to redeem yourself; otherwise it will likely outfly you. You can also catch them mid-flight or chase after them, but trust me, it is much harder. By mid-field season, my field assistant and I were pro butterfly catchers; sometimes we caught two butterflies in one go and caught well over 600 throughout the season!


Each of us (Sarah and I) with some of our proudest catches – catching two butterflies at once!

Once a butterfly was caught, we would carefully take it out of the net, put it in a glassine envelope and in the cooler. Because butterflies are ectothermic, putting them in a cooler does minimal harm – as long as it’s not too cold!

Butterflies tucked away in glassine envelopes being placed in the cooler.

There are a lot of myths about touching a butterfly’s wings and people always ask how safe it is for the insect. Their wings are covered in a powder-like substance that is actually tiny scales, which gives them their bright colours and patterns. Lepidoptera means ‘scaly wings’. As butterflies age, they lose their scales naturally. Although you don’t want to handle them too much and make them lose their scales faster, holding them by pinching the wings together just behind the head – the strongest part of their wing – is very safe for them.

Butterflies are stronger than you might think.
Butterflies are stronger than you might think.

After a few butterflies were caught, we would bring them to the release site. For each butterfly release, we would take a butterfly from the cooler, sex it and give it a unique ID in case we caught it again.

The most reliable way to sex a butterfly is like any other animal: look at their sex organs. It can be difficult at times, but lucky for me, swallowtails are large enough that it makes it easy to tell. Females have an ovipositor at the end of their abdomen that they use to lay eggs and they tend to be thicker bodied. Males have claspers at the end of their abdomen that they use to hold on to the female and they tend to be more slender. Claspers make the abdomen pointed and if you prod at them they will open and close.

Female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail
Female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail
Male Spicebush Swallowtail
Male Spicebush Swallowtail

To mark butterflies we simply used a permanent marker to write on their wings. For Eastern Tigers, which are mainly yellow, it was easy to write a number on their underwing. But Spicebush butterflies are mainly black, meaning that any number we wrote would not show up against their wings. However, they have six orange spots on their underwings that we marked in unique patterns.

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Our butterflies marked with marker. For the Spicebush, we made dots within their spots to make a unique ID.

After recording this information, we would put the butterfly on the ground, wait for it to take off, and follow it using flags and a GPS unit, doing our best not to influence its flight. We did this repeatedly throughout the day. When 5pm rolled around and few butterflies were to be found, we headed back to the field station to make dinner, ending the day with a few beers around the campfire.

I have now completed my Master’s and as it turns out, forest edges are an important landscape feature for these swallowtails. It can be stressful to manage your own research project, but when it’s all said and done, I only have fond memories of spend the hot summer days catching butterflies.