13 December 2014

Ubin Day 2014

ButterflyCircle @ Ubin Day 2014
A Morning at Butterfly Hill

A memorable shot for the album! ButterflyCircle members with PM Lee Hsien Loong at Butterfly Hill, Pulau Ubin. Note the Plain Tiger that photobombed our group shot just above our heads.

The 3rd instalment of Ubin Day returned on 30 Nov 2014, after more than a decade's hiatus. The idea for a special day to celebrate Pulau Ubin was initiated by Grant Pereira and there were two "Ubin Days" held in 2002 and 2003, and none since then. Back then, Ubin Day was celebrated to create awareness and appreciation of this "Granite Stone Island" as its name suggest in Bahasa Melayu.

An aerial view of Butterfly Hill @ Pulau Ubin. © NParks

The 7km by 2km island is often considered the "last frontier" of Singapore's rustic environment and hot bed of rich biodiversity. Spared from intensive development for the past few decades, whilst Singapore grew from third world to first, with its rapid physical development, time almost stood still for Pulau Ubin, after the early granite quarries stopped operations.

Today, the island is a favourite weekend destination for many Singaporeans and residents who visit the island to get away from the urban lifestyle and hectic rush of our daily work life. Offering a wide spectrum of mainly outdoor activities from cycling and bird watching, to camping and canoeing, Pulau Ubin continues to attract nature lovers and the outdoor types on weekends and public holidays.

A male Common Birdwing (Troides helena cerberus) feeds on a Hibiscus flower. This species is regularly seen in numbers at Butterfly Hill

In early 2014, the Ministry of National Development, led by Minister of State Desmond Lee, visited Pulau Ubin with a group of nature enthusiasts, heritage experts, community leaders and public sector agencies. The visit was part of the wider plan to initiate a conversation with Singaporeans on how everyone can play a part to suggest ideas to sensitively enhance the natural environment of Pulau Ubin, which was announced by Mr Desmond Lee in Parliament in March 2014.

An Orange Emigrant (Catopsilia scylla cornelia) feeding on the Snakeweed Flower at Butterfly Hill

Subsequently, the Friends of Ubin Network (FUN) was set up to continue to engage the stakeholders whilst a public feedback portal and Ubin microsite to discuss possible options for Ubin. There have been numerous media articles and blog articles discussing what different groups of people want for Ubin.

With Ria Tan, one of the motivating forces behind Ubin Day

This year, Ubin Day was spearheaded by Ria Tan, Sumita Thiagarajan, working with NParks, which capably hosted the event. Ubin Day 2014 was supported by 31 different organising groups featuring a wide range of activities, throughout the day (and night!). The guest of honour for Ubin Day was none other than the Prime Minister of Singapore, Mr Lee Hsien Loong.

Our junior member, Jonathan Soong briefing some of the participants

ButterflyCircle members organised a butterfly watching and photography session at Butterfly Hill. This little knoll, which I wrote about recently, is an excellent place to watch butterflies and good for photographers who are starting out and learning how to shoot butterflies in their natural environment.

Our day started earlier than usual, and our members gathered at the Changi Ferry Terminal at 7:30am. We quickly boarded one of the bumboats and headed out towards Ubin. Looking back towards the east, the morning sun and clear skies promised a hot sunny day ahead!

Traffic jam at sea!

At the Ubin jetty side, a slight mismatch in schedules caused a "traffic jam" as security personnel who were inspecting the jetty had not completed their work, and caused a bunch-up of all the bumboats waiting to berth at the jetty. It was quite interesting to see, for the first time, at least 20 boats bobbing up and down just a few metres shy of the jetty, with their passengers waiting impatiently to disembark and get on with the day's activities.

Finally, we got the all-clear signal and all the groups headed to their pre-determined stations to start their activities. I was at the town square, where several groups had set up booths displaying posters and other paraphernalia showcasing their groups' activities. ButterflyCircle members headed towards Butterfly Hill to wait for the registered participants for our activity.

PM Lee giving his speech

Before long, the guest of honour, PM Lee had arrived at Ubin and headed for the town square. He gave a speech about the government's intention to contain Ubin's development to what is needed, and also sensitively develop any new facilities with biodiversity conservation in mind. He toured the booths and chatted with the volunteers. After that, he set off on a tour of the island and some of the key areas.

ButterflyCircle members and participants in action at Butterfly Hill

I made my way up to Butterfly Hill, where our members were already at work, spotting butterflies for the participants and sharing a tip or two about butterfly photography. It was encouraging to see the participants working hard, chasing the butterflies that were out and about on this sunny morning.

PM Lee at Butterfly Hill and engaging the butterfly-loving community

At around 11am in the morning, PM Lee and his entourage reached Butterfly Hill and we showed him around the hill, highlighting the butterfly-friendly landscaping and myriad of butterflies fluttering around. PM Lee stopped and took a few photo mementoes of his own. He sportingly entertained "selfies" from amongst our members, before taking a group shot with ButterflyCircle members at Butterfly Hill.

Two additions to Butterfly Hill checklist and also the Singapore Checklist!  
Top : Grey Glassy Tiger (Ideopsis juventa sitah) and Bottom : Malayan Nawab (Polyura moori moori)

The day ended just past noon, where we had a sumptuous lunch at the "two sisters'" kopitiam. It was a satisfying day for our members. Our junior member, Jonathan Soong, even managed to record a re-discovery for Singapore on Ubin Day itself - the Malayan Nawab (Polyura moori moori) at Butterfly Hill. This was added, together with an earlier discovery on 5 Oct 2014 of the Grey Glassy Tiger (Ideopsis juventa sitah) by ButterflyCircle member Loke PF, also at Butterfly Hill!

ButterflyCircle's Pioneer Generation members - Bob Cheong and Sunny Chir - Give them a TIGER! 

Tired but happy.  On the boat ride back to Changi Jetty and home!

It was a memorable day for all, as we headed back to Changi Ferry Terminal. Thanks to Ria for inviting ButterflyCircle to join in the fun on Ubin Day, and our friends in NParks for capably providing the logistics support for the whole day. We look forward to a nature and biodiversity-friendly Pulau Ubin for many years to come!

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Sunny Chir, Chng CK, Huang CJ, Khew SK, Loke PF, Jonathan Soong, Tan Keyang and Tan Hui Yu

Special thanks to ButterflyCircle members who turned up to volunteer their time at Butterfly Hill on Ubin Day : Sunny Chir, Chng Chuen Kiong, Huang Caijin, Koh Cher Hern, Loke Peng Fai, Tan Keyang, Lemon Tea and Jonathan Soong.

Thanks also to our NParks friends, CEO Kenneth Er, "Mayor of Ubin" Robert Teo, Choi Yook Sau and many many other Nparks staff who supported ButterflyCircle and made our day special.

References and Further Reading :

Ubin Day 2014 Website - http://ubinday2014.wix.com/ubin
Ubin Day 2014 - On WildSingapore - http://wildshores.blogspot.sg/2014/12/what-makes-ubin-day-special-ubin-day.html#.VIvvUSuUeSo
ChannelNewsAsia report on Ubin Day - http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/sustaining-pulau-ubin-s/1502310.html

06 December 2014

Life History of the Dark Brand Bush Brown

Life History of the Dark Brand Bush Brown (Mycalesis mineus macromalayana)

Butterfly Biodata:
Genus: Mycalesis Hübner, 1818
Species: mineus Linnaeus, 1758
Subspecies: macromalayana Fruhstorfer, 1911
Wingspan of Adult Butterfly: 40-45mm
Caterpillar Local Host Plants: Axonopus compressus (Poaceae, common names: Wide-leaved Carpet Grass, Cow Grass), Paspalum conjugatum (Poaceae, common names: Buffalo Grass, Hilo Grass).

Physical Description of Adult Butterfly:
On the upperside, the wings are dark greyish  brown with a large but obscure ocellus in space 2 of the forewing, and rarely any ocellus on  the hindwing. The male has a small, dark brown sex brand in space 1b of the forewing, and another one at vein 7 of the hindwing overlaid with a pale yellow hair tuff. On the underside, both wings are paler brown in ground colour and have a clear-whitish post-discal band. There is a series of ringed ocelli in the submarginal area on both wings. In the forewing, the submarginal ocelli usually include only one ocellus in each of spaces 2 and 5, with the former being much larger.  In the hindwing, there is a thin, dark indentation line  stretching down to (but not beyond) vein 1b. Furthermore, the  lower 4 ocelli in the hindwing (in spaces 1b, 2 and 3) are more or less aligned.

Field Observations of Butterfly Behaviour:
The Dark Brand Bush Brown is a common butterfly in Singapore. Adults are typically sighted flying in and around grassy patches at multiple locations across the island. As with other Satyrinae members, the adults fly in an erratic and jerky manner as their wings are closed for a relatively long period during flights.

29 November 2014

Lycaenid Butterflies and Ants

Lycaenid Butterflies and Ants

In many ways, ants are the greatest cooperators on earth. As eusocial insects, they are well known for their highly cooperative and coordinated societies, but they also cooperate with other organisms.  Ants engage in mutualisms—aka symbiotic, cooperative, or mutually beneficial interactions—with plants, fungus, and other insects. They serve as effective protectors, fertilizers, seed dispersers, tenders, cleaners, and farmers. Ants are such prolific cooperators, that an entire class of species interactions exists to describe cooperative associations with ants: myrmecophily (meaning ‘ant love’). But wait, this is a butterfly article, right?

A caterpillar of the Centaur Oakblue being attended by Weaver Ants.

A pupa of the Centaur Oakblue still getting the attention of a number of Weaver Ants.

A Centaur Oakblue adult.

Right: butterflies. As you well know, butterflies are a wonderful group to study for both scientific and artistic purposes. Butterflies are beautiful and fascinating, and as far as I'm concerned, the butterfly family Lycaenidae is the most beautiful and fascinating of them all. With more than 6,000 estimated species, the Lycaenidae is a huge family (second in number only to Nymphalidae), and lycaenid butterflies occur in nearly every habitat where a butterfly could conceivably occur. They exhibit an incredibly broad hostplant range, feeding on numerous plant families, as well as fungi, lichen, and yes, other insects. But what really makes them the most interesting butterfly group is their larval association with ants.

A Common Red Flash displaying its striking upperside.

Caterpillars of the Common Red Flash in the company of attending ants.

A Long Banded Silverline adult.

Caterpillars of the Long Banded Silverline interacting with ants eager to get a taste of its nectary excretion.

More than 75% of the world’s lycaenid species engage in highly specialized larval interactions with ants. In its most basic form, the interaction looks something like this: caterpillars produce nutritious secretions (honeydew) from specialized organs for the ants to eat, and in exchange the ants protect the caterpillars from predators and parasitoids. There are many aspects of this interaction that are tantalizing to a biologist, not least of which are the behavioural and communicative adaptations that must take place in order for the association to work. Caterpillars use a variety of mechanisms, including chemical mimicry and acoustic signaling, to elicit the favor to ants.

A 2nd instar caterpillar being tailed by an ant which is eyeing the nectary fluid excreted by the caterpillar.

A sequence of three pictures showing an ant receiving its pay packet of a nectary droplet from the 2nd instar caterpillar.

Moreover, the interactions can be highly variable, with different lycaenid species engaging in different ‘flavors’ of ant association. Some lycaenids do not associate with ants at all, and among those that do the interaction can range from generalist, facultative mutualism (meaning that the caterpillars don’t need ants to survive, but they’ll associate with them if they’re available) to species-specific, obligate associations (a caterpillar’s survival absolutely requires being adopted by the correct ant species).  The interaction is not always a truly cooperative one either: there are many species of lycaenids that have evolved to parasitize their ant partners. In these cases the ants still care for the lycaenid caterpillars, but instead of feeding on plants like the majority of lepidopteran larvae, the caterpillars switch to carnivorous food sources such as ant brood or other insects that are within the ants’ care. Amazing!

A Quaker adult.

A Quaker caterpillar being tended by an ant.

However, despite the fascinating life histories and the commonness of lycaenids worldwide, they remain some of the most mysterious butterflies in many places.  For example, if you look through the lycaenid section of a good butterfly field guide, you might be amazed to see how often the larval food source is unrecorded. Moreover, many times we think we know what a species eats, we're dead wrong! Hostplant records are often based on anecdotal field observations or on rearing experiments in captivity, but what a caterpillar will eat versus what is does eat are two different stories. Horace recently told me that he's successfully reared the Ciliate Blue (Anthene emolus), a species known to be carnivorous throughout SEA, on plants, and that he has also observed "known" herbivores munching on treehoppers. Go figure.

A mother Singapore Four-line Blue laying an egg on its host plant.

Several caterpillars of the Singapore Four-line Blue with ants in attendance.

Close-up view of one caterpillar (and one ant) in the picture above.

I suspect that carnivory is more widespread than we think. I often come across species descriptions that say something along the lines of "Lives in ant shelters, larval hostplant unknown," and my first suspicion is parasitism. Then again, there are also plenty of species that live inside ant shelters during the day when predators are active, but leave the nests at night to feed on plants under the watchful guard of their ant escorts. In order to describe species' diets and ant associations with confidence, we need systematic observations and study. In lieu of that, the life histories and diets of these species will remain mysterious.

Two early instar caterpillars of the Ciliate Blue (Anthene emolus) with Weaver ants in attendance.

A late instar caterpillar of the Dark Tit (Hypolycaena thecloides).

A final instar caterpillar of the Vinous Oakblue (Arhopala athada).

So, what exactly would we like to know about lycaenid-ant interactions, and why don’t we know it already? For closely ant-associated species, it can be difficult to access lycaenid larvae. Excavating ant nests to search for caterpillars is tough work, and not many people are so inclined to spend their leisure time being attacked by ants. Imagine spending your days opening up weaver ant nests to look for caterpillars--no thank you! But there is some really good stuff in there! The caterpillars of the Moth Butterfly (Liphyra brassolis), one of the coolest lycaenid species in the world, are found only inside weaver ant nests, and a few other lycaenid species have been found in these nests as well. My gut feeling tells me that if more crazy people were out there opening up weaver ant nests we'd be fascinated to find what other animals they host inside. We'd also have a lot of ant bites….

A final instar caterpillar of the Copper Flash (Rapala pheretima sequeira).

A final instar caterpillar of the Pale Mottle (Logania marmorata damis).

But luckily we don’t need to scour every ant nest to answer important questions about lycaenid ecology. We can answer many outstanding questions simply through careful observation - something members of ButterflyCircle truly excel at. By documenting and keeping records of observed associations, we can start to fill in the gaps in our current knowledge. Below is a preliminary list of some easy ways in which the members of ButterflyCircle can contribute important ecological data about Singapore’s lycaenid (and even non-lycaenid) butterflies:

A Branded Imperial adult sipping fluid from the young shoot of its host plant.

Three Branded Imperial caterpillars caught the attention of a large black ant.

  • Photograph interactions between ants and lycaenid larvae whenever possible. These photographs can be considered data, and with enough data we can start to understand fundamental aspects of ant-lycaenid interactions: How often do different lycaenid species associate with ants in the wild? Are certain ant species (or genera) preferred over others? What hostplants do these interactions take place on? Are specific behaviours observed?
  • Note the habitats that these interactions occur in. Do you only find certain species in certain habitats? How might ant distributions affect lycaenid distributions?
  • Photograph ants and hostplants so that they can be identified later.
  • Record GPS coordinates along with photos. This goes for non-lycaenid butterflies as well. Having reliable location data can be useful for understanding butterfly dispersal, population dynamics, and habitat use.
  • Collect DNA material. Many modern zoological museums are shifting their collections away from dried, pinned specimens toward DNA and tissue collections. Rather than donating spread adults to museums like the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, consider donating larvae, pupae, or adults preserved in ethanol instead. Specimens preserved in this way provide a valuable resource for understanding evolutionary relationships, population genetics, and species delineations of Singapore’s butterflies (and moths too!). While I understand and appreciate that collecting is not an important component of ButterflyCircle’s work, if anyone is interested in learning more about DNA collections please feel free to contact me.

About the author:
Dr. Melissa Whitaker is a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, where she studies the evolution and ecology of ant-lycaenid associations. She recently visited Singapore to collaborate with Horace Tan on research focusing on Singapore's lycaenid fauna (funded by the Wildlife Reserves Singapore Conservation Fund). She is a huge fan of the ButterflyCircle’s approach to butterfly study and appreciation. For more information about Dr. Whitaker's research, or to contact her, please visit www.melissawhitaker.net.

Text by Dr Melissa Whitaker; Photos by Khew SK, Horace Tan; Videos by Horace Tan.