Sunday, June 30, 2013

Butterflies Galore! : Chocolate Pansy

Butterflies Galore!
The Chocolate Pansy (Junonia hedonia ida)

On this first day of July, our weekday mini articles will take on a new series called Butterflies Galore! We will feature the awesome works of ButterflyCircle members who spend their time and effort shooting these winged jewels in Singapore on a regular basis.

Today's feature butterfly is the Chocolate Pansy. A common and widely distributed species, it is often ignored by photographers who prefer to chase after rarer subjects to add to their personal collection. However, although it is a common species that can be found in urban parks and gardens, as well as in nature areas, it is a very skittish butterfly and usually uncooperative. ButterflyCircle member Horace Tan chanced upon this tame individual recently and was able to bring out the beauty of this predominantly brown butterfly (hence its common name), with its reddish brown ocelli and cryptic patterns on the underside of the wings.

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Saturday, June 29, 2013

Butterfly of the Month - June 2013

Butterfly of the Month - June 2013
The Rustic (Cupha erymanthis lotis)

Tomorrow will be the last day of June, and we will cross the halfway mark for 2013. It seems like only yesterday that we were wishing each other a Happy New Year in 2013, and now, half the year is almost over. It has indeed been an eventful month for Singapore in June - at least for those residents who were not away from our little red dot during this school holiday month. As with any blog that has anything to do with nature, the environment and current affairs, it would be unthinkable to avoid talking about the dreaded HAZE.

It is almost an annual environmental scourge that, during the dry season of the year, crop farmers and plantation owners in neighbouring Indonesia clear large tracts of land using their archaic (but cheap) method of slash-and-burn. In the past, where farmlands were more compact and the farmers used this method, the burning was more contained and manageable. In recent years, as large areas of land are cleared using the same method for oil palm plantations, the fires that are started take weeks to extinguish - but not before massive areas of greenery are razed to the ground.

This June, the haze, as we call it, started some time in the middle of the month. As more fires were started on Sumatra, the large volumes of smoke generated was carried by the south-westerly winds over to Singapore. What started as a minor haze around the 15th and 16th of the month grew into something that was to set an all-time record for the Pollutants Standard Index (PSI) level that Singapore uses to monitor the island city's air quality.

The last recorded high was in 1997 when the PSI level topped 226 when most of Singapore choked on the smog and kept cross-border diplomats busy with 'protests'. On 17 Jun 2013, at 12 noon, the PSI breached the 400 level and reached a historical record of 401 (and was way into the "hazardous" air quality level). Numbers notwithstanding, just being outdoors on that day made me feel like a trapped and helpless rodent in a burning and smoking building with nowhere to run. The air smelt of burnt wood and the smoke was absolutely smothering.

It was time again, for Singaporeans of all walks of life to don all manner of masks to try to go about their daily routine of commuting to and from work, and to carry out their daily activities in as normal a manner as possible. The recommended 3M N95 face masks, touted to be more effective than the surgical masks, flew off the shelves of the retailers that stocked them.

And so came the annual haze, courtesy of the old ways of the farmers in Indonesia, and the exploitative large-scale commercial companies whose primary aim is to maximise their profits with the wanton destruction of large tracts of land for their money-spinning oil palm plantations. I wonder how long more this will continue to happen, before Mother Nature strikes back again.

As for our beloved butterflies, the haze will affect them like any other living and breathing organism on planet Earth. Whilst the haze particles and pollutive elements in the air are miniscule, compared to us humans, these very same particles are like large pieces of trash, relative to the sizes of butterflies and their caterpillars. The particles are likely to interfere with the respiratory function of butterflies and their early stages. The impact of the haze on butterflies is yet to be ascertained, but as long as the haze is not prolonged, it is likely that the population of butterflies will spring back, as it did back in 1997. So let's hope that our butterflies continue to be as resilient as they had been in the past.

This month, we feature a medium sized Nymphalid, the Rustic (Cupha erymanthis lotis). An active and skittish butterfly, the Rustic often leaves many a photographer seething with frustration as it has a wide circle of fear and it takes off quickly before a photographer has a good chance of taking a shot of it at close range. Occasionally, however, when it is attracted to sweat and other food sources that it likes, the Rustic becomes more cooperative and allows a photographer to approach it.

The Rustic is a restless flyer and constantly on the move in its habitats in the forested areas of Singapore. The upperside is orange-brown with a yellow discal patch and a black apical area on the forewing. The wings are ornamented with black spots and streaks. The underside is pale yellow orange, but with essentially the same black markings and spots as above.

The butterfly is usually observed singly and is quite widespread in Singapore.  Although it prefers the safety of the forested nature reserves, individuals have been observed in urban parks and gardens where its caterpillar host plants - Flacourtia rukam and Flacourtia inermis, which it shares with other closely related species like the Leopard and Vagrant.

The complete life history of the Rustic has been recorded on this blog here. The caterpillar host plants, particularly Flacourtia inermis has been cultivated in many parks and gardens as a feature plant, e.g. Fort Canning Park, Ang Mo Kio West Town Park and Gardens by the Bay, and will probably attract the species to these parks from time to time.

Let us hope that the urban greening of Singapore continues to favour butterfly biodiversity, as we move towards more biodiversity-friendly strategies to promote and enhance nature. In our city planning there are ample opportunities to allow development and nature to co-exist in harmony, and it is up to everyone who cares about nature to work towards this vision.

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Sunny Chir, Goh LC, Antonio Giudici, Federick Ho, Khew SK, Henry Koh, Loke PF, Simon Sng, Terry Ong & Horace Tan

This article is dedicated to ButterflyCircle member Tan Chung Pheng (who uses the online nick Rustic), a long-time butterfly photographer who has taken a leave of absence from active butterfly photography to enjoy a blissful married life, and raising a bundle of joy.

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Thursday, June 27, 2013

Down Memory Lane - Orange Albatross

Down Memory Lane : Gone Forever?
The Orange Albatross (Appias nero figulina)

This new weekday short article series features some butterfly species that were previously recorded in checklists of the early authors who collected in Singapore from the 50's through to the 70's. Two main references of the species found in Singapore during that era were "Butterflies of the Malay Peninsula by Corbet & Pendlebury 4th Edition, revised by Col John Eliot" and "Butterflies of West Malaysia and Singapore by W.A. Fleming".

The latter author's collection of nearly 9,000 specimens is now nestled in the good hands of Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research. See the story of the collection arriving in Singapore here.

The first species in this series is the Orange Albatross (Appias nero figulina). Recorded in Singapore in the 70's, the Orange Albatross has not been seen since. Veteran butterfly expert Steven Neo recalls this species flying around in the "kampung areas" during his younger butterfly-chasing days.

The butterfly is dark orange above with prominent black veins on both wings, whilst the underside is a light yellowish orange. Males of the Orange Albatross can sometimes be common in Malaysia during the months of March to June and found puddling on sandy streambanks in the company of other Papilionidae and Pieridae. Will we ever see this orange beauty in Singapore again? Or will it remain only in our memories and is gone forever from Singapore?

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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A Loitering Vagrant captured in Singapore!

A Loitering Vagrant captured in Singapore!
Featuring the Vagrant (Vagrans sinha sinha)

A vagrant is generally understood as "one who has no established residence and wanders idly from place to place without lawful or visible means of support". It is therefore a curious name for a butterfly to be named as such. But, knowing the myriad common English names and their possible origins, trying to find the genesis and rationale of a butterfly's "given" name is often a question of guessing what the author saw or experienced at the time he coined a name for the species.

Recently, in Singapore, a "long-lost" species, the Vagrant, was seen on two separate days at Gardens by the Bay. Newbie ButterflyCircle member Billy Oh, had posted a couple of shots of this species as he could not identify what he shot. It turned out to be our first re-discovery of this year! The Vagrant was in the checklists of the early authors, but has not been seen in Singapore for at least the past three decades or more. Then all of a sudden, it re-appeared. This pristine individual was seen in the vicinity of one of its caterpillar host plants, Flacourtia sp. that is found at GB.

The following day, when ButterflyCircle members went hunting for the species, member Koh CH was fortunate to encounter it again in the early hours of the morning. As it is a skittish and always on-the-move species, it was difficult to track and photograph it. Also, as the species shares the same host plant (and also behaviour) as the related Leopard (Phalantha phalanta phalanta), and which coincidentally also looks and behaves like the orange-coloured Vagrant in the field, searching for the Vagrant proved more challenging than anticipated.

Hence, with two confirmed sightings and photos from ButterflyCircle members and the following rationale, we will be adding it to the Singapore Butterfly Checklist as a re-discovery for Singapore :

  • The individual sighted is relatively pristine and in very good condition, suggesting that natural migration by flying over from Malaysia may be unlikely. Also, the Vagrant is not a known migratory species, nor is by any measure a particularly strong flyer.
  • The month of June is typically the season with south-westerly winds blowing from Sumatra, hence any migration aided by prevailing winds from the north in Malaysia can be ruled out. Whilst the species may have come from the Riau archipelago is a plausible theory, evidence of the Vagrant's existence in nearby Batam or Bintan is sketchy.
  • The import (from Malaysia) of two of the Vagrant's host plants, Flacourtia rukam and Flacourtia inermis and cultivated at Gardens by the Bay could be a possible 'vehicle' on which the early stages of the butterfly could have stowed away and entered Singapore. However, the plants at GB are already quite mature and have been brought in since the previous year prior to the opening of the Gardens at Bay South. Hence it may not be anything recent and the species may have been already breeding on the plants at GB.
  • The Vagrant is typically a forest-dependent species, but as with the Rustic (Cupha erymanthis lotis) another Flacourtia feeder, may have been attracted to the urban coastal park due to the abundance of its host plant.

Will the Vagrant be seen again anytime soon? It was surprising enough that it re-appeared in Singapore after all these years, and even more surprising to find it at an urban downtown park like Gardens by the Bay! Are there young caterpillars breeding on one of the many Flacourtia trees, just waiting to show themselves again soon?

No one can never say for sure. But we certainly hope that the Vagrant will continue to stay on in Singapore and add to the diversity of butterfly species that can be found on our little red dot.

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Koh Cher Hern and Billy Oh

Footnote : The taxonomic name of Vagrans sinha sinha is used here, instead of the earlier references to the species name as Vagrans egista macromalayana due to a series of recent papers by Tsukada (1985) Treadaway (1995), Vane-Wright & deJong (2003) and Smetacek (2012) regarding the status of sinha vs egista in the Sundaland taxon.

With special thanks to Dr TL Seow for his expert views and background research on the revised taxon name of the Vagrant

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Sunday, June 23, 2013

Random Gallery - Malayan Eggfly

Random Butterfly Gallery
The Malayan Eggfly (Hypolimnas anomala anomala)

A break in the haze over the weekend prompted some ButterflyCircle members like Loke PF to get out in the sunshine and relatively clear skies to go butterfly-hunting again. In the aftermath of PSI levels of greater than 400 points on the index (which spells 'hazardous' air quality conditions), the sunshine and blue skies over Singapore on Saturday afternoon was a great relief. The winds changed direction and blew the haze northwards to Malaysia, even as the National Environment Agency in Singapore cautioned that it would only be a temporary relief as the winds would likely blow the smog down south again soon.

Anyway, here is an excellently-executed shot of a Malayan Eggfly feeding on the flowers of Leea rubra. The added bonus of a stingless bee floating just behind and below the butterfly makes the shot an outstanding one. The Malayan Eggfly is locally common and is well known for the behaviour of the female butterfly laying up to 100 eggs at one go, and then standing guard over her eggs until her demise.

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Saturday, June 22, 2013

Life History of the Banded Demon

Life History of the Banded Demon (Notocrypta paralysos varians)

Butterfly Biodata:
Genus: Notocrypta de Nicéville, 1889
Species: paralysos Wood-Mason & de Nicéville, 1881
Sub-species: varians Plötz, 1882
Wingspan of Adult Butterfly: 33-36mm
Caterpillar Local Host Plant: Costus lucanusianus (Costaceae, common name: African Spiral Flag).

Physical Description of Adult Butterfly:
Above, the wings are dark brown. The forewing has a large white band consisting of conjoined spots in spaces 1b, 2 and the distal end of the cell. There is usually a small white hyaline spot in space 4 of the forewing. The hindwing is unmarked. Underneath, the wings are brown and dusted with purplish scales next to the termens. The purplish hue is more readily observed in pristine specimens. The antenna has a pale whitish band just below the club.

Field Observations of Butterfly Behaviour:
Banded Demon is moderately common in Singapore. The adults are rather localized and are typically found in the vicinity of its host plant in the fringe of the nature reserve. The adults are fast fliers among the ground cover and shrubbery. They visit flowers for nectar, and at times perch on sun-bathing spots with half-open wings.

Early Stages:
Thus far the early stages of Banded Demon are found to utilize only one local host plant in the Costaceae family. It is likely that other plant species in the Zingiberaceae and Costaceae families are utilized as well. The caterpillars feed on leaves of the host plant, and live in leaf shelters constructed by cutting and folding and securing leaf fragments with silk threads. As the caterpillar grows in size, it will abandon the current shelter and proceed to construct a bigger one.

Local host plant: Costus lucanusianus (African Spiral Flag).

Leaf shelters for various instars of the Banded Demon found on its host plant in the field.

The eggs of the Banded Demon are laid singly on the upper surface of a leaf of the host plant. The hemispherical egg is wine-red mottled with milky white patches. It has a base diameter of about 1.25-1.30mm.

Two views of an egg of the Banded Demon.

Two views of a mature egg, with the caterpillar's head visible through the hole in the shell in the right view.

The egg takes about 4.5 days to hatch. The newly hatched has a length of about 2.8-3.0mm and has a black head capsule and a orange-colored body. A black collar mark lies just behind the head on the dorsum of the prothoracic segment. A few relatively long setae are present at the posterior end.

Two views of 1st instar caterpillar, early in this stage, length: 3mm.

After hatching, the young caterpillar eats the empty egg shell for its first meal, and then moves on to construct its first leaf shelter, typically at the leaf tip. From the shelter, it then ventures out to eat the nearby leaf lamina for subsequent meals. The body takes on a green undertone as a result. The growth in this first instar is moderately paced and the body length reaches about 5mm in about 3-3.5 days before the moult to the 2nd instar.

Two views of a 1st instar caterpillar, late in this stage, length 6.2mm.

A late 1st Instar caterpillar, dormant before its moult.

The 2nd instar caterpillar is yellowish green in body colour. The head capsule is still black, but the black collar mark on the prothorax is now absent. At the posterior end, the relatively longer setae are longer present, and the anal plate is unmarked. This instar lasts about 3 days with the body length reaching 8-9mm.

Two views of a 2nd instar caterpillar, early in this stage, length 5.8mm.

A late 2nd instar caterpillar, dormant prior to its moult, length: 8.8mm.

The 3rd instar caterpillar is pale yellowish green. Otherwise it resembles the 2nd instar caterpillar closely. The anal plate is still unmarked, and the head is still entirely black. This instar takes about 3 days to complete with body length reaching about 14-15mm.

Two views of a 3rd instar caterpillar, early in this stage, length 9mm.

Two views of a 3rd instar caterpillar, length 10.5mm.

A late 3rd instar caterpillar, dormant prior to its moult, length: 14mm.

The 4th instar caterpillar is little changed from the 3rd instar in terms of body markings and coloration. This instar takes about 3 days to complete with body length reaching about 23-24mm.

Two views of a 4th instar caterpillar, early in this stage, length 14mm.

Two views of a 4th instar caterpillar, late in this stage, length 22mm.

A late 4th instar caterpillar, dormant prior to its moult, length: 23mm.

The 5th and final instar caterpillar is mainly pale yellowish to whitish green. The black head capsule has pale brown patches on the two sides of the coronal sulcus. These pale brown patches vary in size and can reach as far down as to the mandibles. The 5th instar lasts for about 5 days, and the body length reaches up to 37-39mm.

Two views of a 5th instar caterpillar, early in this stage, length 25mm.

Two views of a 5th instar caterpillar, late in this stage, length 35mm.

The heads of two 5th instar caterpillars, showing the pale brown patches in two variations.

On the last day of the 5th instar, the body of the caterpillar shortens and changes to a milky shade of yellowish green. It ceases feeding and comes to a halt on the surface of a leaf of the host plant. Here the caterpillar spins a short transverse silk band and a silk girdle. At the same time, a moderate amount of white waxy substance is secreted by the caterpillar and spread over the pupation site. With its posterior end secured to the silk band via claspers and the body secured at the mid-section with the girdle, the caterpillar enters its immobile pre-pupatory stage.

A pre-pupatory larva of the Banded Demon.

Pupation takes place about 1.5 day later. The yellowish green pupa secures itself with the same silk girdle as in the pre-pupal stage, but with the cremaster replacing claspers in attaching the posterior end to the transverse silk band. The long and slender pupa has a long rostrum and is unmarked. Length of pupae: 28-30mm..

Two views of a pupa of the Banded Demon.

Two views of a mature pupa of the Banded Demon.

After about 7 days of development, the pupa turns black as its skin turns translucent with the development within the pupal case coming to an end. The white band in the forewing are now discernible in the wing case. The following day, the adult butterfly emerges from the pupal case.

A newly eclosed Banded Demon clinging onto its empty pupal case.

  • [C&P4] The Butterflies of The Malay Peninsula, A.S. Corbet and H.M. Pendlebury, 4th Edition, Malayan Nature Society.
  • Butterflies of Thailand, Pisuth Ek-Amnuay, 2nd Edition, 2012
  • A Field Guide to the Butterflies of Singapore, Khew S.K., Ink On Paper Communications, 2010.

Text by Horace Tan, Photos by Jonathan Soong, Lemon Tea Yi Kai, EC Goh, Anthony Wong and Horace Tan.
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