08 November 2007

Saving the Harlequin - Part 2

Following the eggs harvested from the adult Harlequin butterflies, members of ButterflyCircle carefully bred the caterpillars on the host plants. To avoid having an entire batch of caterpillars wiped out due to viruses or other unknown accidental causes, the caterpillars were divided amongst a few members to ensure a high chance of survival of the caterpillars for the next generation of the Harlequins.

Eggs of the Harlequin on a leaf of the host plant.

Breeding caterpillars is not an easy task, particularly for a species where the caterpillars are very small in size. Daily cleaning of the caterpillars' enclosure is needed to ensure that droppings do not become the source for bacteria or other microscopic pathogens which may kill off the caterpillars due to disease. A fresh supply of leaves of the host plant must also be available so that the caterpillars do not starve to death or end up stunted due to insufficient food.

First instar Harlquin caterpillars just hatched from their eggs. Upon hatching the caterpillars immediately consume their own eggshells as their first source of food.

After about 17-20 days of careful care of the caterpillars by ButterflyCircle members, a batch of over 80 of the caterpillars successfully pupated. In this dormant state, the amazing process of metamorphosis takes place in the pupae.

Two caterpillars of different instars feeding on a leave of the host plant. The lower caterpillar is in its 5th instar and on course for pupation.

As we wait with baited breaths for the eclosion of the adult Harlequins where these individuals will hopefully form the next generation of Harlequins with which we will continue to breed and release into habitats which are similar to the one where the species was first found.

Pupae of the Harlequin. In this dormant stage, metamorphosis occurs, as the transformation from caterpillar to the adult butterfly takes place. This typically takes about 7-10 days depending on the species of butterfly.

Several locations have been selected for the translocation of this species and hopefully, the species will continue to survive and thrive in their new home. Will the Harlequin continue to survive and exist on Singapore? Will these next generation of butterflies bred by ButterflyCircle members survive and spawn the next generation and the next?

There are no guarantees in nature. However, the effort taken in conducting this experiment to save the Harlequin from imminent extinction in Singapore as its habitat is being destroyed, is a laudable attempt by ButterflyCircle members, and we hope that we will have at least done our best to try to save a species of butterfly from extinction in Singapore, instead of sitting down and lamenting the loss of another species of our precious fauna to development.

Text by Khew SK ; Photos by Sunny Chir and Horace Tan


MS said...

hey me again! finally see the host plant, even though just part of a leaf ;) it that some kind of Ardisia?

"A fresh supply of leaves of the host plant must also be available..." - where did you get so much leaves? please tell me that you guys didn't cut the whole tree or know this plant is common so can afford to harvest.. if Harlequin is endangered because of habitat loss, i.e. host loss, chances are their host plants are also rare/endangered.. please tell me that's not true >_<

"Several locations have been selected for the translocation of this species.." - if noone study the population of their host (potentially endangered), this become another of my concern: is the carrying capacity enough to sustain your translocated Harlequin population?

"Will these next generation of butterflies bred by ButterflyCircle members survive and spawn the next generation and the next?" - just thought the result could be more ascertained if we have a more complete understanding of the whole ecosystem..

Great work nonetheless!

Commander said...

You are clearly someone who is conversant with plants. Yes, it's a species of Ardisia, which is common in many places. It is definitely not an endangered plant. What is more unique to this species is the habitat. The host plant can be found in abundance in parks and many nature areas.

It is not the availability of the host plant that we are worried about. Replicating the habitat, and also issues like what the adult butterflies feed on, and why they have only remained in that location for so long is the mystery that we have to unlock.

However, time is against us, as is usually the case with land cleared for development. Most of the time, it is usually too late, as was the situation with a particular species at the Lower Seletar area which was cleared for the Aerospace Hub.

There are too many theorists and too few do-ers. As far as our group is concerned, a species is probably destined for extinction. There is no time to study or understand anything in detail. It's either do or do not... there is no try... ;-p

Monkey said...

i think both of you have good points and probably are thinking about the same thing.

I think we all agree that there are other factors influencing the survival and natural propagation of these butterflies more than just the existence of a host plant.

As Khiew mentioned, there are other factors. A hostplant does not make a habitat.

So what are these other factors? I guess that is something Butterfly circle is still trying to learn right?

I agree that it's good to act first and theorize later. But I am sure that butterfly circle is trying to breed the harlequins AND learn about their habitats at the same time right?

MS is actually studying trees that's why he's such an "expert" hehe so apparently these ardisia species are on the red data book - 5 Nationally extinct, 4 critically endangered, 2 endangered, 1 common.

I think it'll be good if theres more conversation like this! Perhaps MS can help butterfly circle find out more about the ecosystem.

By learning more about the ecosystem, 1) we will be able to help the harlequin better so the "habitat" is available and not just the "hostplant" 2) we will be able to do things ex-situ and of course 3) we will be able to make sure the ecosystem that the new butterflies are introduced to will be able to survive within the carrying capacity etc.

So why don't you guys share your expertise with each other! :D sounds like a plan :P should i email both of you to get things started? :)

MS said...

Hi Commander. Thanks for the info but I still have questions. Sorry - as our ecosystem is pretty complex, ecologist mind can pretty complicated, too (though they can be pretty people :)

As a ecologist who very committed to habitat/ecosystem conservation, naturally I'm more reserved towards single-species/taxon conservation. So, my main concern for relocating Harlequin can be summed as two:

1 - What can be the potential impact on host plant, especially in the absence of predator? All Ardisia except for one is endangered/critically endangered/nationally extinct in Singapore (Singapore Red Data Book II) and most butterfly caterpillar feeding on only one host plant species (see my colleague work at Thailand, also see Novotny 2002), I wonder how much will the relocated Harlequin affect the host populations in new habitat? Like you said the host plant is common (A. colorata I presume?) so I hope that will not be a concern. But what happened to the tree at Hougang few days ago reminds me of how good can lepidopteran spawn ;) and sending a chill down my spine if Harlequin are capable (and decide) to host-shift to a nearby con-generic but endangered Ardisia sapling (it just another plant what.. I can already hear some readers muttering :)

2 - How about the impact on other animals? Most larvae of Lycaenids are myrmecophilous - are Harlequin the same? If they are and the symbiont ants are absent will that reduce the success of your propagation? Many adult Lycaenids are carnivorous - good that Harlequin are not else many other invertebrates will be screwed. You mentioned you have a "formula to make the adult happy in captivity" I hope they can feel the same in the wild, too.

I understand that the location should be kept confidential so that disturbance is minimized. As I'm interested to find our more, let's take this discussion off onto our email so you don't need to reveal too much on blog if you are not comfortable (I know monkey used "cryptic" when you didn't reveal much other than the butterfly ;). Just want to raise the point here that species conservation is more than meet the eyes, and help you clarify that you are not conserving one species at the expense of others. Cheers!

PS: having written so much (longer than most blog I posted) I hope I'm not categorized as one of your "theorists". I'd be long famous if I'm one, I won't be bother writing this and doing all those things I'm doing now, LOL! Right, monkey?

Commander said...

You have some valid concerns there, ms. Let's take this offline and have a discussion via email. You can email me at hexaglider@yahoo.com

We can use all the help we can get from experts like you. The Harlequin project is not exactly out of the woods yet. We need to record all the observations about the habitat and what the butterfly feeds on, etc., before we can even hope to replicate and translocate the species successfully.

Sunny said...

Hi there,

Just an update ....from the eggs of 12 of the evacuees from the site , we have close to 60 Harlequins eclosed into adults over the last week .

Some of the females have started to oviposit in the last 24 hours.

We hope they will hatch for Part II of the project.... mass breeding.

Wish us luck!!

Perling said...

if you are from singapore,
and you have some non poisonous caterpillars,i would like to get some from you.
email me at toh_perling@hotmail.com.
thank you very much.

Sunny said...

First Mass Release was carried out on 26 Dec 07 at 2 sites , a total of 200 pupae are in the wild .These pupae should eclosed within the next 48 hours and it will be up to Mr and Mrs Harlequin to propagate naturally on these 2 sites. More Mass releases will be conducted on other selected sites in the coming months.

This conclude the main part of our first attempt in ex situ butterfly conservation which has stretched over a period of 20 months: From hostplant identification, monitoring of population statistic, habitat monitoring/observation, selection of new habitat , collection of adults, harvesting of eggs, mass breeding risk management , the caring and breeding from eggs to pupae/ butterfly in a mass scale. With the successful conclusion of this part of the project and the experience gained we are now better equipped in future for in situ or ex situ butterfly conservation.

We will be moving to the follow up plan which comprises of regular visits to check how they fair in these new habitat and where necessary and practical to reinforce their presence on these sites.


MS said...

Glad to hear that the project is being carried out carefully. Keep up the good work and all the best!

Sunny said...

Update : The Harlequin are Surviving at Release Site A

On routine checking of Site A this morning, I was pleasantly surprised by meeting 3 pristine individuals, two females and one male fluttering high up on a fishtail palm at site A.

Basing on a life cycle time of approx. 28 days and adult life span of approx. 14 days , the last insertion of adults into site A being on 8th Jan 08 . These 3 adult Harlequins must be at least the second generation of those released under the project.

Let's hope they will continue to thrive on the site which is not expected to be threatened by development.