28 March 2009

Common Three Ring - A Cinderella of Butterflies

The Common Three Ring - a Cinderella of Butterflies

In his book, Common Malayan Butterflies, author R. Morrell describes the Common Three Ring (Ypthima pandocus corticaria) as "a poor Cinderella of butterflies, so common that no one has troubled to observe its life history". Indeed, most photographers also tend to ignore this "unattractive" species and prefer to shoot other prettier subjects.

Butterflies of the genus Ypthima are generally called by their English Common names derived from the yellow-ringed submarginal eyespots on the hindwing. The larger ring on the forewing is not counted. Furthermore, the pair of small rings at the tornal area of the hindwing counts as a single ring. Hence in the Common Three Ring, there are three ocelli on the hindwing.

Other related species of the genus are named after the number of rings - four, five and six, in a similar fashion. The other species are not featured in this short article.

The Common Three Ring is thought to "almost dispute the claim of the Common Grass Yellow (Eurema hecabe contubernalis) to be regarded as the commonest butterfly in Malaya". In Singapore, that is certainly not the case, as the Common Three Ring, whilst relatively common, is not as widespread as its yellow competitor. Found locally at various spots at the fringes of the nature reserves, it is not common in urban parks and gardens, where its cousin, the Common Five Ring appears to be more often observed.

The caterpillar of the Common Three Ring feed on grasses, and we have recorded the early stages to be surprisingly long - a period of about 38 days from egg to pupation, for a butterfly that is supposedly common.

A 4th instar caterpillar and a pupa of the Common Three Ring

The species is the largest of the genus Ypthima in Singapore. It is greyish brown above, with a large subapical black yellow-ringed ocellus on the forewing. There are two silvery spots in the black ocellus. On the hindwing, there is a similar but smaller subtornal ocellus, and another pair at the tornal area. The underside is greyish to pale buff brown, with the wings traversed by innumerable fine dark brown striations where the hindwing has three yellow-ringed black submarginal ocelli.

The Common Three Ring is somewhat variable in its markings and even size. It is a weak flyer, usually staying just a few feet above from the ground. It prefers flying amongst low grasses and does not usually fly far if undisturbed. In the early morning hours, it has a tendency to sunbathe with its wings opened flat. However, it is quite alert, and takes a bit of patience to get a good shot of it.

Where it is found, usually several individuals are seen together. In Singapore, the species is usually found at grassy patches and often flies in the company of other species of the Bush Browns (Mycalesis) and Nigger (Orsotriaena) genera.

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Khew SK

References :
  • Common Malayan Butterflies - R. Morrell, 1960, Longman Malaysia
  • Malaysian Butterflies - An Introduction, 1993 3rd impression - Prof Yong Hoi-sen, Tropical Press Sdn Bhd
  • The Butterflies of The Malay Peninsula, A.S. Corbet and H.M. Pendlebury, 1992, 4th Edition, Malayan Nature Society.

Earth Hour 2009

Earth Hour 2009 - What did you do?

No, I didn't inadvertently upload a blank photo. The black frame above is meant to signify the darkness that engulfed my house, from 8:30pm this evening, and for one full hour, as my family of four switched off all the lights, aircon and non-essential appliances in support for Earth Hour 2009. We then went for an evening stroll around our housing estate and spent quality family time together.

Earth Hour is an annual international event created by the WWF, held on the last Saturday of March, that asks households and businesses to turn off their non-essential lights and electrical appliances for one hour; Based on an idea successfully executed in Thailand in 2005, it was pioneered by WWF Australia and the Sydney Morning Herald in 2007.

As I explained to my kids, the act of switching off the lights and other electrical appliances in the house is a symbolic gesture. It is to create a mindset and awareness of climate change, and the impact that our everyday habits can make to the environment. Although environmental sustainability is an issue that almost everyone in most professions talk about, the belief and commitment varies from person to person.

Singapore participated in Earth Hour 2009 in a much bigger way than in 2008, and from media reports, at least 10,000 people and 450 companies, hotels, malls and schools will switch off their lights for an hour at 8.30pm, as part of the global Earth Hour energy conservation effort. The gesture is totally voluntary, and depends on how each individual perceives the need to change for a better world.

However, not all Singaporeans think very much about the whole issue, and a poll showed that over half of those interviewed did not know about it, and of the remaining who knew, many didn't think that it was worth bothering about. Overall, about 30% polled said that they would join in the effort.

Climate change and global warming will affect all life on earth as we know it - even our beloved butterflies. There have been studies to show that the rise of ambient temperatures have an effect on the diversity and population of species across the globe.

Yes, switching off lights, aircon and electrical appliances for one hour is probably just a pointless gesture to many people. But if you did, it is a vote that you will make changes in your life so that you will consider what you can do, in your own little way, to reduce your carbon footprint. The message here, is not about that 1 hour, but what happens after that.

So what did you do from 8:30pm to 9:30pm on Saturday 28 Mar 2009?

Text by Khew SK

21 March 2009

Life History of the Malayan

Life History of the Malayan (Megisba malaya sikkima)

Butterfly Biodata:
Genus: Megisba Moore, 1881
Species: malaya Horsfield, 1828
Sub-species: sikkima Moore, 1884
Wingspan of Adult Butterfly: 21mm
Caterpillar Local Host Plants:
Mallotus paniculatus (Euphorbiaceae, common name: Turn-In-The-Wind)

Physical Description of Adult Butterfly:
The Malayans are small butterflies. Above, both sexes are dark brown with a white discal patch which is more prominent in the female. The underside is white to dull grey. The forewing has a series of costal spots, one spot in the cell, a cell-end bar, a postdiscal curved series of transverse spots or short bars from costa to dorsum, a submarginal series of broader transverse spots and a thin anticiliary line. The hindwing has three spots near base in transverse order, a large prominent black spot near the apex, a cell-end bar, a broken postdiscal series of faint spots, and as in the forewing, a submarginal series of broad transverse spots and a thin anticiliary line. A pair of short tails is found at end of vein 2 in the hindwing. Elsewhere in the region these tails might be absent in some races, but the species found in Singapore has consistently been found to possess the tails.

One Malayan perching on a leaf in the nature reserve.

Another Malayan on another perch.

Field Observations of Butterfly Behaviour:
The Malayan was not recorded as being extant in Singapore by early researchers, and it was only discovered recently in surveys conducted during '90s. A casual look would easily have one mistaken it for the Common Hedge Blue (Acytolepis puspa lambi). The two species can be separated by checking the color of the upperside and the presence/absence of costal spots on the forewing underside. The adults of the Malayan have a weak erratic flight and can be found both the nature reserves and the Southern Ridges in wooded areas, particularly in the vicinity of its local host plant. The males have been observed to puddle on damp patches, animal dung and bird droppings.

Early Stages:
Mallotus paniculatus is a bushy tree with ovate and pointed leaves about 12-17cm long. The leaves are whitish to pale brown and thinly scurfy on the underside. Fruits are 3-lobed spiny, about 1-1.2cm wide, and are found on large panicles. This is a common tree found in waste lands, track sides in the nature reserves and the Southern Ridges. The early stages of the Malayan feed on the flower buds and flowers of this host plant.

Clusters of flower buds of Mallotus paniculatus.

Eggs of Malayan are laid singly at a flower bud, rachies or pedicel near the flower buds. The egg is small (about 0.4-0.5mm in diameter) and light green in colour, circular with a slightly depressed micropylar area and a reticulated pattern of intersecting ridges.

A mother butterfly laying her eggs at a cluster of flower buds of Mallotus paniculatus.

An egg of the Malayan laid among the flower buds, diameter: 0.4mm-0.5mm.

An egg of the Malayan: Freshly laid (left); Empty egg shell (right).

Three days later, hatching takes place after the young caterpillar has nibbled away sufficiently large upper portion of the egg shell to emerge. Measured at a length of about 0.8mm-0.9mm, its pale yellow body is cylindrical in shape, sporting long fine setae (hairs) and a dark head capsule.

A newly hatched caterpillar of the Malayan, length: 0.8mm

With the egg laid amongst or near the flower buds, the newly hatched has no problem finding its food supply. It works its way through the tomentous surface of the flower buds and bore into it for the goodies within. As it feeds and grows, it gradually takes on a pale brown base color with series of small pale yellow patches running sub-dorsally and spiracularly.

Two 1st instar caterpillars feeding on flower buds, length: 1.2mm

After about 3-4 days of growth and reaching a length of about 2mm, the caterpillar moults to the next instar. The 2nd instar caterpillar resembles the late 1st instar caterpillar in body color and markings, but the setae are now much shorter in proportion.

Two 2nd instar caterpillar, early in this stage, length: 1.8mm

2nd instar caterpillar, length: 2.5mm

The 2nd instar caterpillar reaches a length of about 4mm, and after about 4 days in this stage, it moults again. The 3rd instar caterpillar has proportionately shorter but still numerous body hairs. The sub-dorsal pale whitish patches run from the 2nd thoracic segment to the 6th abdominal segment, larger on the first twto segments. The dorsal nectary organ (on the 7th abdominal segment) is ringed in dark brown markings. This instar takes 3-4 days to complete with the body length reaching about 5.5-6mm.

3rd instar caterpillar, length: 4mm

3rd instar caterpillar, late in this stage, length: 5mm

The 4th (and final) instar caterpillar is more striking in general appearance as there are prominent white patches interleaved with smaller pale brown to green patches. There are numerous tiny "asterick"-shaped specks, of white, brown and green coloration, sited at the base of setae. These structures could serve as mechano-receptors or might be glandular in nature. At a larger scale, the typical lycaenid nectary organs (both the dorsal nectary organ on the 7th abdominal segment and tentacular organs on the 8th abdominal segment) are now easily spotted.

4th instar caterpillar, length: 7mm

4th instar caterpillar, length: 9.5mm

Left: Dorsal nectary organ (DNO) and tentacular organs (TOs) on posterior segments;
Right: Prothoracic shield and anterior segments

After 5 days of growth and reaching a maximum length of around 8.5-9.5mm in the final instar, the body of the caterpillar gradually shrinks, and takes on a pinky coloration. Soon the caterpillar seeks out a spot on the stem amongst the flower buds or the surface of an adjacent leaf to station itself. At this site, it enters the pre-pupatory phase where it readies itself for pupation by spinning a silk girdle and a silk pad. The caterpillar secures itself to the silk pad via claspers on its posterior end.

Two views of a pre-pupa of the Malayan.

Pupation takes place after one day of the pre-pupal stage. The pupa has the typical lycaenid shape. It is pale yellowish brown with a hint of pink. The surface is covered with a layer of short fine hair, and decorated with a few brown and black specks. Each pupa has a length of about 6.5-7.5mm.

Two views of a fresh pupa of the Malayan.

Five days later, the pupa becomes darkened in color signaling the imminent emergence of the adult. The next day the adult butterfly emerges from the mature pupa to begin the next phase of its life cycle.

Two views of a mature pupa of the Malayan.

A newly eclosed Malayan.

Another newly eclosed Malayan


  • The Butterflies of The Malay Peninsula, A.S. Corbet and H.M. Pendlebury, 4th Edition, Malayan Nature Society.

Text by Horace Tan, Photos by Sunny Chir, James Chia and Horace Tan

14 March 2009

Butterfly of the Month - March 2009

Butterfly of the Month - March 2009
The Cruiser (Vindula dejone erotella)

The month of March usually heralds the beginning of the butterfly season in SouthEast Asia, which peaks in April & May. These are the few months of the year when the weather is generally hot and humid, and when butterflies are abundant in Malaysia, and to a lesser extent, in Singapore as well.

We feature a relatively common butterfly in Singapore - the Cruiser (Vindula dejone erotella). The species is very much a forest-dependent species, and is rarely, if ever, found in urban parks and gardens. A regular in the forested nature reserves of Singapore, the Cruiser is a relatively large Nymphalid belonging to the subfamily Heliconiinae. This species displays a classic example of sexual dimorphism, where the male and female of the species are distinctly different in appearance.

The male Cruiser is a rich fulvous orange above, and has a broad post-discal band of slightly paler colour on both wings. The band is broad at the forewing, and narrows almost to a point near the tornus of the hindwing. There are distinct black marginal and submarginal lines which give the wing a zig-zag appearance. There is a small orange apical spot on the forewing, and six black-centred ocelli on the hindwing, usually small in size. There is a short pointed tail at vein 4 of the hindwing. The undersides are lighter orange in colour.

The female is usually larger in size, but is coloured a pale greenish grey. The post-discal band is white. The hindwings have three pairs of orange-yellow black-centred ocelli which are large and distinct. There is a small white apical spot on the forewing. The tail at vein 4 of the hindwing is longer than that of the male.

The larval host plant is reported to be a species of Adenia (Passifloraceae) which is a vine with spring-like tendrils.

In the nature reserves, males are often found puddling on fermenting organic matter, carrion and at urine-tainted banks of streams. They may also be observed puddling at muddy footpaths. They are less skittish when puddling and can be observed of one approaches them slowly. Males are also fond of sunbathing with their wings opened flat but they are skittish when not feeding.

Females rarely puddle but can be found flying at great speeds high in amongst the treetop level. They are often seen perched on leaves at high level, with wings either opened flat or closed upright. Like the males, they are skittish, and take off quickly if they sense movement towards them. However, when they are encountered feeding on flowering plants, they are likely to be more cooperative for a closer observation.

A female Cruiser feeding on the flower of the Singapore Rhododendron (Melastoma malabathricum)

At public parks on the fringes of the nature reserves, both males and females have been observed together, feeding greedily on the flowers of Ixora and Lantana bushes. When feeding on flowers, they have a habit of opening and closing their wings regularly, and turning around.

A female Cruiser feeding on the flowers of Ixora sp.

The Cruiser is a sun-loving butterfly and is active on bright hot days, and is probably one of the first few butterflies that a beginner butterfly watcher is likely to encounter in Singapore's forested nature areas.

Text by Khew SK ; Photos by Khew SK

This blog article is dedicated to Tan Ben Jin, a veteran butterfly watcher and photographer, and a long-time friend and active supporter of ButterflyCircle.

07 March 2009

Butterflies of the Singapore Botanic Gardens

Butterflies of the Singapore Botanic Gardens

Late last year, I had the honour of being invited to write an article about the butterflies of the Singapore Botanic Gardens in the SBG Newsletter - Gardenwise. This was the second time that I had written for the Gardenwise, the first time being in Volume 17 published in July 2001. Another article published after ButterflyCircle's "Butterflies Thru' the Lens" exhibition at the SBG Visitor Centre appeared in Volume 27 in July 2006.

So, after an eight year absence, the article Butterflies of the Singapore Botanic Gardens was published in Volume 32 Jan 2009 issue of Gardenwise.

The Gardens is one of my favourite sanctuaries when I need to get away from stressful situations at work, and a walk amongst the lush greenery and abundance of nature is very often a therapeutic stress-reliever. The Gardens hosts one of the largest collections of plants – both native and exotic, in Singapore. The bird life (see Gardenwise 30 (2008) 14-19) is healthy, with over a third of the total number of species seen in Singapore occurring here.

Amongst the plants and flowers of the Gardens, insect life is equally abundant. A casual observer will surely encounter a number of butterflies frolicking in the sunshine, busily feeding at flowers or just lurking around in the shaded understorey of the Rainforest at the Central Core of the Gardens.

This is the first attempt at compiling a checklist of butterflies of the Butterflies of the Singapore Botanic Gardens Gardens. Whilst there have been many observations and personal checklists made by enthusiasts and visiting experts, it would be ideal to maintain a repository of sightings, preferably with photographs. Over the years, I have kept a personal checklist of the butterflies that I’ve observed whenever I visit the Gardens, and also sightings made by other enthusiasts and observers, some of whom have kindly sent photographs of butterflies that they have encountered.
The list will, undoubtedly, keep growing as new species are found.

Butterflies can be rather choosy about their habitats, and being rather plant specific, many butterfly species are usually found more often in the vicinity of their caterpillar host plants. For example, the recent cultivation of Aristolochia acuminata and Passiflora foetida has brought in showy species like the Common Birdwing, Common Rose (and its subspecies, the Black Rose) as well as recent immigrants like the Leopard Lacewing and the Tawny Coster. The collection of Zingiberaceae and Palmae in the Gardens has attracted the skippers – Hesperiidae, of which a few species are rare and not often seen elsewhere. The caterpillars of the Hesperiidae create leaf shelters out of their host plants, and hence can often be easily spotted (and dispatched) by a sharp-eyed gardener who would consider these pests!

Two rare species which are noteworthy enough for special mention are the Orange Tail Awl (Bibasis sena uniformis) and the Blue Nawab (Polyura schreiber tisamenus). The former was a recent discovery for Singapore where it was found in the forested areas of the Central Catchment Reserves. Hence it came as a surprise to me when a small colony of caterpillars was found in the Gardens feeding on a common ‘wild’ shrub near the Tanglin Core. I have personally not seen an adult butterfly of this species in the Gardens, but upon breeding the caterpillars to adulthood, it was confirmed that the species is indeed the Orange Tail Awl.

The Blue Nawab is another curious resident of the Gardens. A rare species in Singapore, the caterpillar of this species was originally recorded on rambutan (Nephelium lappaceum) but subsequently recorded by ButterflyCircle members on the red saga (Adenanthera pavonina), a Bauhinia species (along the trellises near Les Amis Au Jardins), and on the exotic but common Australian wattle (Acacia auriculiformis). It has been sighted regularly in the Gardens, and some years ago I was having a meeting on the 2nd storey of one of the bungalows when a Blue Nawab decided to stop and rest on a tree branch just outside the window!

Another species to look out for is the Bamboo Tree Brown (Lethe europa malaya) which was spotted at the bamboo collection at the Bukit Timah Core. It is a rare species which is usually active only in the early hours and late hours of the day. A surprising find in the Gardens was the Courtesan (Euripus nyctelius euploeoides) of which a male was spotted some time back by Dr Ian Turner who emailed me a photo taken whilst on a routine walk around the Gardens. Even the parasitic plant Dendrophthoe pentandra which grows innocuously on its hosts’ branches way up in the treetops supports a number of beautiful butterfly species like the Painted Jezebel (Delias hyparete metarete), Green Baron (Euthalia adonia pinwilli) and a number of beautiful Hairstreaks like the Peacock Royal (Tajuria cippus maxentius).

The other species in the checklist are predominantly urban butterflies that are relatively common in Singapore, but nonetheless contribute life and variety to the Gardens. As butterflies are mobile and some species can fly long distances in search of both nectaring and caterpillar host plants, it is beyond doubt that more species will be added to the checklist as time goes by, adding to the biodiversity and colour of the Gardens.

Text by Khew SK ; Photos by Khew SK

Acknowledgments : Special thanks to Director/SBG - Dr Chin See Chung, and General Manager/SBG - Dr Wong Wei Har.

(This article appeared in the Feb 2009 Volume 32 of the Singapore Botanic Gardens Newsletter - Gardenwise on pages 18-20)

Download a PDF copy of Gardenwise here.