Catching butterflies with spiderwoman's daughter

Kristine Sabillo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Apr 18 2019 05:58 AM

“Ragadia luzonia,” Dr. Aimee Lynn Barrion-Dupo said matter-of-factly as she pulled out a brown-banded butterfly from her insect net and showed it to her companions.

“Look at the eye spots,” she said, as two of her companions bent down to look closer at the butterfly wings adorned with a band of black circles that looked like dilated pupils.

Nearby, a young entomologist tried his luck at catching butterflies. Hopping from rock to rock, he extended his arm, flicked his wrist and trapped another winged insect.

The rest of the small group, also professors and students at the University of the Philippines Los Banos, watched in amusement, seated on large rocks several meters away from the barbed wire fence that kept people away from Mt. Makiling’s extremely hot mudspring.

Dupo is one of only two spider experts in the Philippines. And that Sunday in March, she joined other entomologists – insect experts – as they collected samples of butterflies and other invertebrates.
Sundays are Dupo’s only rest day but she said they have decided to integrate field work in their leisurely treks.

“It’s hard to balance (field work and office work). If you ask me, I really have to spend more time outside because there are a lot of species to document. It’s also a race against time because some of the areas are changing,” she told ABS-CBN as the news team tagged along with their group.

The group of entomologists nonchantly enumerated the scientific names of the butterflies and moths they have collected. It seemed like a game of Pokemon Go, where the aim was to “catch ‘em all.” But Dupo said they only collect two per species to protect the insect species and to comply with the permit they got.

In the end, they collected less than 10 specimens, which they slid into a re-sealable plastic bag.

As they headed back to the main road, the group of entomologists refilled insect traps with alcohol and picked up trash left by other hikers. Dupo, who did not want to do a sit-down interview, started talking about her unconventional childhood.

As the second child of spider taxonomist Alberto Barrion and spider geneticist Adelina Barrion, Dupo spent her childhood at her father’s lab.

“I grew up playing with insect nets and vials,” she said.

Spider taxonomist Aimee Lynn Dupo at Mt. Makiling. Photo by George Calvelo, ABS-CBN

Eventually, she learned to love the creatures that people were often scared of. She called them the “underdogs of entomology.”

She took up agriculture as an undergraduate student at UP Los Baños and then focused on entomology for her graduate studies in the same institution.

Her family’s dream was to co-write a pictorial guide on Philippine spiders. But it got delayed after her mother — the original Spider Woman — died in 2009.

Today, Dupo has been used to being called “Spider Woman” in news reports and features. She said she doesn’t necessarily like the title but she understands how it helps promote spider conservation.

“When it comes to conservation, people have high affinity toward butterflies. They think moths are ugly. I want to change their perceptions about spiders, as well as moths so that conservation efforts are not limited to those that look beautiful,” she said.

From ogres to Urduja

Currently, there are 534 recorded species of spiders in the Philippines, according to Dupo. However, there are a hundred or so new species that have been discovered in the country but have not yet been written about. 

Among her favorites are colorful spiders that use their attractive patterns for mating or so-called ogre-faced spiders that have a fascinating way of catching prey.

“They look ugly and they have two big eyes. Their faces do look like ogres…But I prefer using their other name – ‘net casting spider,’” Dupo said. “These spiders seemingly knit their web into a net. And while hanging upside down like Spiderman, they use the web to catch their target.”

For Dupo, discovering a new species feels like getting a good bargain at the mall.

“Very exciting when you see a new species. It’s like seeing an item at the mall that you really want to buy and it’s on sale,” she explained laughing.

She said it means you have gotten something unique and that your name is “immortalized, forever tied to it.”

While they are not allowed to name new species after themselves, they can name it after any person.

“You can name it after a person you dislike if the spider is ugly,” she joked. “That’s the beauty of naming stuff. You can also tie it to culture.”

Dupo said this was the case with the miniature tarantula species Masteria urdujae, which was discovered by her apprentice in a cave in Pangasinan.

“Because the Masteria spider comes from Pangasinan, my advisee named it after the warrior princess, Princess Urduja,” she explained.

Dupo said it was a great idea since it could be discussed in school as part of social studies class. 

Entomologist Aimee Lynn Dupo holds a butterfly specimen collected near the mudspring of Mt. Makiling. Photo by George Calvelo, ABS-CBN

Butterfly trade, spider derby 

But now that she is a curator at the UP Los Banos’ Museum of Natural History, Dupo said she is also trying to do more conservation work. 

“Not much of discovery. But the highlight of my career is to serve and help educate. When I see someone appreciating spiders in the field of taxonomy, I feel that I am part of that success,” she said.

Dupo said she is happy to see people who have changed their minds about spiders – letting them be instead of killing them like pests.

Dupo pointed out that large huntsman spiders found in homes are actually helpful since they eat cockroaches.

She said something should also be done to protect spiders from being used for the blood sport of spider derby.

“Actually they are much endangered like our vertebrates,” Dupo said. “Because they are also threatened by trade. There is a lot of illegal trade when it comes to arthropods (insects, arachnics, etc.) but because there is also no data, they remain unprotected.”
She said they have already released a red list of species of insects that are being endangered.

She said traders are attracted to insect trade, such as those involving butterflies, because it has become lucrative.
On the other hand, gamblers prefer spiders because of their low purchase price and high betting value.

While they do not have data on whether this has negatively affected the population of spiders, Dupo said they know that majority of the spiders being used for the fights are female, who are crucial in the reproduction of their species. 

A world without insects

“The surge of mosquitos or even flies could be an indication of their decline in the ecosystem because there are no predators (like spiders),” Dupo explained.

Recently, it was reported that 40 percent of insect species are declining. Among the causes are land conversion, agrochemical pollutants, invasive species and climate change.

Dupo said fewer insects would have a large impact on the environment and humans.

In addition to increased populations of harmful insects like mosquitoes, cockroaches and other pests because of the absence of predators like spiders, there will also be fewer pollinators.

“All the fruits that we are enjoying now is because of pollinators, which are usually insects,” she said.

Dupo explained that having fewer insects could also affect animals who feed on them.

“If you don’t like insects but you like birds, you have to also love them. Because insects are their major prey,” she said. 

Two hours or so later, Dupo and her group reached the site of Mt. Makiling’s elusive rafflesia plants. Like before, she goes closer, takes photos of the spider hiding inside the weird-smelling flower’s central part. 

Already, she’s thinking of the permits they will need to gather specimen of flies and other insects that play an important role in the pollination of the endangered plant.

We will return, she promised.

Entomologist Aimee Lynn Dupo catches butterflies at Mt. Makiling. Photo by George Calvelo, ABS-CBN

Fears and challenges

With Dupo’s level of commitment, one would think that she was indeed a superhero like Spiderwoman but she admits how challenging it is to be a female scientist while caring for her family.

The news team’s interview with her almost did not push through as she was under a lot of stress just days before the trek.

“We had a workshop for our staff and then we had another training. Then my children got sick,” she said.

Her youngest child also has autism so she has to regularly be there for his therapy. 

At one point, she also feared what might happen during their hikes. This was after the death of fellow entomologist James Alvarez in 2018.

Alvarez suffered from dehydration during a hike in Mt. Apo. 

“We know the reality of our field. We can be bitten by a snake, fall off a cliff…it could be our last climb,” she said.

After Alvarez’s death, their group became hesitant about going on hikes.

“We were all traumatized because we would remember that he was always with us when we would go hiking…He was actually at the peak of his health, very fit…That’s why we were shocked when we got the news that he had died,” she said.

In the end, it was Dupo’s husband, an entomologist working for a pesticide company, who convinced her to face her fears.

“I thought of just staying in a safe place but my husband said I would not be happy,” Dupo recalled.

In the end, she and her colleagues became even more active in climbing the nearby Mt. Makiling.

“Every time we climb, we are in our happiest place. We are in the mountains doing what makes us happy – describing new species, discovering the world and sharing it with the public. That is why we always return,” she said.