ECR feature: Lucas Neves Perillo on megadiversity on ancient tropical mountains

Lucas Neves Perillo is a postdoc at the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais in Brazil. He is a biologist interested in conservation and science communication. Here, Lucas shares his recent work on disentangling the effects of latitudinal and elevational gradients on bee, wasp, and ant diversity in an ancient neotropical mountain range.

Lucas Neves Perillo ready for his fieldwork in neotropical mountains.

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Institute. Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais and Bocaina Biologia da Conservação

Academic life stage. Postdoc

Major research themes. Community ecology, Science communication, Insect diversity, Biogeography

Malaise trap mounted at the Pico do Barbado Mountain.

Current study system. Ancient tropical mountains are megadiverse, yet little is known about the distribution of their species. In Brazil, the Espinhaço Mountain Range hosts the campo rupestre ecosystem, the climatically warmest Brazilian biodiversity hotspot. The Aculeata, an insect group composed of bees, wasps and ant species, are pretty diverse and provide an interesting study opportunity in this hotspot because they are easily collected and provide various ecosystem services, such as pollination, seed dispersal and honey. This project was the first to study the Aculeata species distributed throughout the Espinhaço and opens up possibilities for further studies.

Recent JBI paper. Perillo, L.N., Castro, F.S., Solar, R., Neves, F.S. (2021). Disentangling the effects of latitudinal and elevational gradients on bee, wasp, and ant diversity in an ancient neotropical mountain range. Journal of Biogeography, 48(7): 1564-1578

Pico da Formosa, one of the 12 mountains that we collected the Aculeata specimens.

Motivation behind this paper. I did my master’s project on a mountain near my hometown. When I started my PhD, I wanted to expand my study scale to understand how insect species were distributed in the Brazilian mountain chains. Despite invertebrates’ great diversity and importance to humanity, they are often neglected in conservation policies, especially in mountainous environments. With the objective to explain the variation in invertebrate species diversity over environmental gradients, we started to study how climatic variables were related to different latitudes and elevations. Mountains are true natural biodiversity laboratories, given that in a few kilometers, we can experience considerable variation in temperature, humidity, soil types and vegetation, with the bee, wasp and ant communities following these variations.

Searching for Aculeata – Pico do Itambé Park.

Key methodologies. The main objective of the project funding my PhD was to understand the distribution of Aculeata species at different latitudes and elevations in the Espinhaço Mountain Range. To achieve this goal, we designed our fieldwork to collect Aculeata specimens on different mountains over varying elevations. We performed fieldwork at 24 study sites across 12 mountains, covering 1200 km from south to north and an elevational range varying from 1000 to 2000 m. At each mountain, we positioned a trap set near the mountaintop and another at the mountain base. Each set consisted of a Malaise trap (flight intercept), four yellow pan traps and four ground pitfall traps. These are complementary methods used to collect different species of bees, wasps and ants. In the laboratory, we pinned the insects, identified them to the lowest taxonomic level possible, and housed them at the scientific collection of the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, Brazil. After all these steps, we needed to access climate information from the collection sites to conduct the analyses. For that, we used the free database available at the WorldClim platform.

A nice place to camp! At the Reserva Particular do Patrimônio Natural Santuário do Caraça.

Unexpected challenges. We faced a lot of challenges in this research, especially during fieldwork. The fieldwork took over 120 days, covering 20,000 km by car and 1,398 km on foot, traveling through 40 Brazilian municipalities. We climbed twelve mountain tops searching for insects. In some cases, it took more than 10 hours just to reach the peak. At each mountain, the team camped for ten days. Some places were easily accessible, but we had limited water for drinking and cooking at some camping sites. Some days, it rained so hard that we had to dry our clothes inside the tent. Working with mountain insect communities is not an easy task! The challenge continued in the lab, as we had to sort, organize and identify over 12,000 bees, wasps and ants specimens. It was an amazing project that helped me to learn and evolve as a researcher.

All the equipment that had to fit in our backpacks – with Matteus Carvalho and Arleu Barbosa.

Major results. Our main objective was to disentangle the effects of latitudinal and elevational gradients on the distribution of bees, wasps and ants, and to understand the effects of climatic variables. During fieldwork, we collected 843 species from 17 different families, a considerable number of species! In terms of latitude and elevation, latitude had no impact on diversity over the range studied, and we found a general decrease in diversity towards higher elevations. That is, the variation in species composition increased with elevation and with geographical and environmental distances. Our results showed that variation in species richness and composition across mountains is strongly associated with elevational gradient, which showed stronger climatic variation than the latitudinal gradient. Temperature, wind, and precipitation were important drivers of diversity, with temperature being the most important. Therefore, despite having narrow elevational ranges, tropical mountains have strong biogeographical effects driving diversity due to high variation in conditions and resources availability. Under a scenario of global climate changes, this elevational gradient that spans up to 2072m (the highest point of the entire mountain range) may limit species range shifts, leading to severe biodiversity losses.

The researcher Lucas Perillo with a part of the equipment ready to walk during fieldwork.

Next steps for this research. Unfortunately, the field collections are over. It was definitively my favourite part besides the challenges. Yet, we have a lot of collected material. This study focused only on bees, wasps and ants, but other insects (e.g., herbivores and flies) and spiders can still be explored. The Aculeata data is also being analysed under different perspectives, such as contrasting distributions between specialist and generalist species. We may also have some undescribed species, in which we are still looking for taxonomists to help us explore the wasp families. Lastly, it would be interesting to go back to the same sampling sites in the future to understand how these communities vary over time.

Sphecidae wasp preparing the prey.

If you could study any organism on Earth, what would it be? Despite studying insects since the beginning of my career, I’m also interested in other groups. I would like to participate in projects with large mammals and plants, for example. But what fascinates me are the mountains. If I could work in other mountains around the world, the taxonomic group would not matter. Plants in the Andes, insects in the Himalayas, or mammals in the European mountains… any of those experiences would make me feel super fulfilled!

Chrysididae specimen.

Anything else to add? I appreciate projects that propose public science communication. In Brazil, I coordinate outreach activities in environmental and conservation biology. Podcast, blog, and audiovisual contents are some of the initiatives that I carry out beyond academia. For this paper, I’ve made a short video in English ( and a complete one in Portuguese ( to share the main findings of the project. I hope you enjoy it!

Published by jbiogeography

Contributing to the growth and societal relevance of the discipline of biogeography through dissemination of biogeographical research.

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