28 November 2021

Butterfly of the Month - November 2021

Butterfly of the Month - November 2021
The Dark Caerulean (Jamides bochus nabonassar)

A Dark Caerulean perched on the tip of a leaf and surveying its surroundings 

The 2nd last month of 2021 is almost over. But the world is still wondering when Covid19 is going to end, or will it continue to wreak havoc on our lives. It has been almost two years since the virus was discovered. Now, different countries are dealing with the virus in their own unique ways - from almost getting back to normalcy and dispensing with face masks, to extreme cases where snap lockdowns are imposed with zero tolerance of any infection cases.

A male Dark Caerulean showing a bit of its deep shining blue uppersides

Whatever the case may be, life must go on. Like fighting an alien invader in the movies, humankind has to reclaim the initiative. Medical science has improved in leaps and bounds for the past 24 months - from vaccines and better medical care to pills that can reduce the symptoms or even mitigate the seriousness of the virus attack to avert fatality. And the battle rages on.

Many countries are working to re-open their economies and connectivity. Vaccinated Travel Lanes (VTLs) have been negotiated and implemented amongst countries that have open travel of passengers who have been vaccinated - without the need for long and unproductive quarantines. There is a glimmer of hope for people who have not seen their loved ones for nearly two years, and families and friends to be reunited again.

Back here in Singapore, the government is relaxing its safety management protocols in small steps. As of this week, vaccinated individuals are now allowed to dine out in groups of five. Opening up of the economy is still cautiously done, as the number of infections are still in the 2000+ on average, although more than 98% of these covid positive cases have either mild or no symptoms. However, the sad part is that for the past two months, there have still  been daily fatalities, particularly amongst seniors above 60 years of age.

Whilst there is optimism that we will live with Covid as an endemic disease, a new threat rears its head in the form of Omicron, another variant of the virus that is said to be even more infectious and deadly. Originating from Africa, it has already begun to make its way across to Europe and Asia, and it will be a matter of time when we will have to deal with this new scourge.

A mating pair of Dark Caerulean.  Left : Male, Right : Female

Fortunately, our butterflies are not affected by such viruses that have exposed the vulnerability of our human species. The feature butterfly for the month of November 2021 is the Dark Caerulean (Jamides bochus nabonassar). One of six species from the genus Jamides found in Singapore, the Dark Caerulean is also the smallest amongst the six species.

A Dark Caerulean feeding on the flower of the Singapore Daisy (Sphagneticola trilobata)

The Dark Caerulean has, in recent years, become more regularly spotted by butterfly photographers in Singapore. Though recorded as a moderately rare species, it has been observed in a wide variety of locations and habitats. This may be because its caterpillars feed on several host plants which are considered weeds and grow quite commonly in wastelands and cleared areas.

A male Dark Caerulean showing its deep shining blue upperside.  Unfortunately, this individual was the victim of a Crab Spider

The male is a deep shining blue above on both wings, giving an attractive iridescent appearance when the butterfly is in flight. There is a broad black border on the forewing apical area with the hindwing border narrower. The females are paler blue and have broad black borders on both the fore and hindwings.

The underside is ochreous brown in the males and greyish in the females. There is the usual series of whitish striations on both wings. There is a large black tornal eyespot that is crowned with orange. and a smaller one adjacent to it. There is usually some light blue iridescent scales in the eye spots. At vein 2 of the hindwing, there is a filamentous white tipped black tail.

The eyes of the Dark Caerulean are large and jet black, whilst the antennae are banded black and white. The butterfly is often seen feeding at flowers or ovipositing on one of its caterpillar host plants. At other times, it can be seen fluttering restlesssly amongst shrubbery and stopping to rest on the tops of leaves in the habitats that it prefers.

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Chng CK, Khew SK, Koh CH, Loh MY, Loke PF, Horace Tan and Benjamin Yam


31 October 2021

Butterfly of the Month - October 2021

Butterfly of the Month - October 2021
The Malayan Jester (Symbrenthia hippoclus selangorana)

A Malayan Jester puddling at a sandy trail in the nature reserves

Another year has almost gone by, and we are on the threshold of the 11th month of 2021. There is light at the end of the tunnel and many countries are reaching a tipping point as far as managing COVID19 is concerned. At least for most of us, the light at the end of the tunnel is not the headlamps of an oncoming locomotive! There is some optimism although local statistics tend to be biased towards just putting the pandemic unnecessarily in a negative limelight.

Friends who have managed to travel overseas, out of necessity for work or other personal reasons, have shared their experiences in different countries. The management measures range from "living as though Covid is over" to "continued strict quarantine regime" in different countries. Each government has its own prerogative to manage things the way they deem fit - treating the virus as endemic and opening up liberally where people go about their daily life even without masks, to a zero case strategy where snap lockdowns are imposed the moment there is even a slightest evidence of a potential resurgence of infections.

But the world is moving slowly but surely towards a normalcy that has been redefined by COVID19. A new world where the virus will be treated like the myriad of diseases, whether life-threatening or otherwise, that we humans have to live with. For many of us, we wait in anticipation of being able to travel overseas again. Whilst we always appreciate being home, too much of a good thing may also cause us to wonder what it is like to get out and learn new things as we have done so in the past.

For us butterflyers, it has been nearly two years of being locked down without any overseas trips. Perhaps this is why the social media has had a higher number of sightings of the less often-seen local species? There are more "eyes and ears" on the ground than would have been normally the case. Also, the cross-over shooters from the bird watchers have also been active with their long lenses, and have been able to spot more species from afar, that would have usually been out of reach of the macro shooters.

A conversation with some friends likened the travel restrictions and lock downs to a Rip Van Winkle effect. Where we wake up after a period of time, and wonder how things have changed and we are just catching up for lost time. Would we have been more efficient and productive, and had experienced a lot more new things if not for these two years "stolen" from us? I doubt if anyone was measuring or tracking the loss of productivity in most cases. Nor would anyone admit to it. Will 2022 see major changes? Let's hope so!

Our Butterfly of the Month for October 2021 is the Malayan Jester (Symbrenthia hippoclus selangorana). When it was first spotted in 2012, it was the first time a species of this genus was discovered in Singapore. Recorded as a new discovery, it is considered a non-native species in the Singapore checklist. Although the species is not rare in Malaysia, it is classified as an exotic species under the IUCN definition as far as Singapore is concerned.

After that first observation, the species was not spotted again until some years later, when a colony of them was found at the Dairy Farm Nature Park. Several individuals, some very pristine, were observed over a period of a few weeks. The individuals were puddling or sunbathing along the main trail at the nature park, and on some occasions, a few individuals were encountered together.

The species continued to be observed at various parts of Singapore, indicating that it had spread to other locations. Recently, a caterpillar of this species was discovered feeding on the leaves of the Australian Mulberry (Pipturus argentus). This is also the host plant of another local butterfly species - the Malayan Eggfly (Hypolimnas anomala anomala), which is also under the same subfamily Nymphalinae as the Malayan Jester.

A Malayan Jester puddling at a damp footpath at Dairy Farm Nature Park

The Malayan Jester is black with orange bands on the upperside, arranged horizontally across both wings. There is a short stubby tail on the hindwing. It is a medium sized species with a wingspan of about 45mm. There are several lookalike species in the genus, and may be difficult to identify from the upperside markings alone.

A sunbathing Malayan Jester peers down from its lofty perch 

The underside is pale orange-brown and richly variegated, giving a marbled appearance. The Malayan Jester is often confused with a nearly lookalike species the Common Jester (Symbrenthia lilaea luciana) but can generally be distinguished from that species by the discal spot in space 3 of the underside of the forewing - where it is orange in S. lilaea but outwardly pale pinkish or nearly all pinkish in S. hipplocus. Also, contemporary literature also indicates that S. lilaea is a montane species that is usually found in the hills above 1,000m.

Caterpillar of the Malayan Jester

The Malayan Jester is fast on the wing and skittish, but may be approached when it is feeding on flowering plants or puddling on damp forest footpaths. The caterpillar of the Malayan Jester has been successfully bred on Australian Mulberry (Pipturus argenteus) Urticaceae in Singapore.

Text by Khew SK : Photos by David Chan, Federick Ho, Khew SK, Koh CH and Lim HP

26 September 2021

Butterfly of the Month - September 2021

Butterfly of the Month - September 2021
The Banded Royal (Rachana jalindra burbona)

A male Banded Royal sunbathing on a leaf, showing off its shining blue uppersides

The year 2021 marches on and we take another step nearer to the end of the 9th month of the year. The Hungry Ghosts have long returned to the underworld, we celebrated the Mid-Autumn Festival on 21 Sep, and had our fill of sugar-laden mooncakes of various types from snowskin to durian-filled ones. Amidst all the activities around us, COVID19 did not go away. It's not going away anytime soon, and dealing with it, is key to how we get our normal lives back, eventually.

A male Banded Royal feeding on the flower of the Javanese Ixora (Ixora javanica)

But the virus keeps mutating, like playing war games with humans - ever changing, ever counteracting each move we make. Even as the delta variant makes its way around the world, there are reports of new strains appearing ominously. It makes us wonder if the earlier designed vaccines will work and how effective the vaccines will be, in warding off the new variants - if at all!

Each country and its government handles the pandemic issues differently. There are no precedents, no rule books to turn to for solutions. Each measure is an experiment of sorts. Some seem to work, others appear to fail miserably. Time will tell.  But what had worked previously, in the earlier stages of the pandemic spread, seem to be wearing thin, and may no longer be effective. Aggressive lock-downs seem to be no longer working well, other than incurring the wrath of the population and severely damaging the economy and livelihoods.

As each country strives towards the elusive "herd immunity" - whether by vaccination or by widespread infection, it is a race against time. But statistics are beginning to paint a clearer picture where there is some measure of protection amongst those who are fully vaccinated. Even when infected, symptoms are milder or in some cases, the affected individual is even asymptomatic. Older people, however, are more vulnerable, especially those who are suffering from other chronic ailments.

A male Banded Royal opening its wings partially to sunbathe at the peak of Bukit Timah Nature Reserve

Singapore is dealing with another increase in infections daily, passing the four-figure mark, and reaching a daily number of community infections that has never been seen since the start of the pandemic. Whilst the strategy is to eventually accept COVID19 as "endemic", the pace at which the spread increased was not expected. It created a critical strain on our healthcare resources and front line workers. And from tomorrow, we will be back into tighter containment measures that will put limits on our daily lives and mobility. It is understandably necessary at this point in time, and we can only hope that it will work.

We move on to our butterflies now. Oblivious to the pandemic in our human world, our winged friends are in a much better shape than us. They are still thriving, and with more photographers out and about during the pandemic, there appears to be more sightings of butterflies in various habitats all around Singapore. Our Butterfly of the Month for September 2021, is the beautiful but rare Banded Royal (Rachana jalindra burbona).

A female Banded Royal trying to oviposit on the leaf of the Common Chinese Mistletoe (Macrosolen cochinchinensis), its caterpillar host plant

This Lycaenid depends on its host plant, a mistletoe (parasitic plant) for its early stages. The host plant, the Common Chinese Mistletoe (Macrosolen cochinchinensis) is hardly common. Being a parasitic plant that requires a host on which to survive, the plant is not particularly welcomed in urban gardens and is often removed by landscape maintenance workers - due to concerns that they may kill the host plant. However, it is not certain if this is just an assumption or were there many real instances where the host plant perished due to the existence of this parasitic plant.

Male (top) and female (bottom) Banded Royal

The Banded Royal was recorded as a re-discovery when it was spotted in 2006 in the forested nature reserves in Singapore. After that first encounter, sporadic sightings of the species have been recorded from time to time. Sighting records of the Banded Royal appear to suggest that it is widely distributed, appearing in various locations and habitats from the forested nature reserves to the fringes of urban parks, and even on our offshore islands like Pulau Ubin.

Upperside of the Banded Royal - Male with shining blue upperside (top) and Female with brown upperside (bottom)

The male Banded Royal is a deep shining blue above with narrow black borders. It sports a distinctive brand at the end of the forewing cell end. The female is predominantly brown above and unmarked except for a few black spots at the tornal area of the hindwing. The underside is white, with a broad purple-brown distal border where the inner half is a darker shade of brown.

The brown apical band of the male is more suffused with white compared to the female. The underside of the hindwing has two large tornal spots, one of which is orange-crowned and the other adorned with iridescent light blue scales. There are two tails at veins 1b and 2 of the hindwing, where the one at vein 2 is black and white tipped. The eyes of the Banded Royal are jet black and rather large.

A Banded Royal feeding on the ripened fruits of the Singapore Rhododendron (Melastoma malabathricum)

The species is skittish and has a strong erratic flight. It is sometimes observed feeding on the ripened fruits of the Singapore Rhododendron (Melastoma malabathricum). Females are more often encountered in the vicinity of its caterpillar host plant where they are sometimes seen ovipositing on the young shoots of the plant.

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Khew SK, Koh CH, Loh MY, Michael Soh and Horace Tan

29 August 2021

Butterfly of the Month - August 2021

Butterfly of the Month - August 2021
The Ultra Snow Flat (Tagiades ultra)

A pristine Ultra Snow Flat feeding at the flowers of the Pagoda Flower (Cleredendron paniculatum)

Someone recently remarked to me : "OMG! Is September around the corner already??". Yup. We had another month of "lockdowns", takeaway meals, WFH and the like. And almost another year that's been stolen from us by this COVID19. No travelling, no overseas work trips and a ton of leave to clear with nowhere to go. That's what life has become, as we try to imagine life after COVID - or rather, what life would be like, living WITH this virus around us. Already, the 3-digit daily infection numbers in Singapore seem to have lost its panic-inducing effect, and the general citizenry is slowly coming to terms with an "endemic" disease that we have to live with.

An Ultra Snow Flat feeding on the nectar of the Chinese Violet (Asystasia gangetica)

Somehow, the severe toll on certain businesses is expected, but not often openly publicised. There are hushed whispers of companies going under, salary cuts and retrenchments. But then again, there are still people who are leaving their present jobs. A strange phenomenon, but nonetheless true. Did the pandemic create an environment where workers have more time to reflect on what they really want to do? Or is there actually a manpower shortage out there which has created a demand that outstrips supply of manpower resources?

A sunbathing Ultra Snow Flat perching on the upperside of a leaf with its wings spread open flat

In the built environment industry, anecdotal information indicates that there are construction firms that are closing down, creating an even more critical demand for contractors and hence higher costs and long delays. Even the big boys are not spared. Projects are delayed, lives changed as Singaporeans have to forego plans to move into their much-anticipated new homes, costs escalating - resulting in more contractual disputes, and the list goes on. And yes, it's caused by an organism that is invisible to the naked eye!

In spite of these negative environment, there are areas of optimism. The Tokyo Olympics "2020" were finally held in 2021. Life for the athletes went on. Gold medals were won, and the display of sportsmanship and camaraderie of fair competition carried into the spirit of the Games. Someone grabbed the bull by the horns and decisively pushed on with the Olympics and in the blink of an eye, it is over. Done. COVID or no COVID, Japan moved on.

Over in Singapore, we celebrated Singapore's 56th year of independence. For the first time in history, the National Day celebrations were postponed. It was at the height of another surge in infections, as the government tried to move the vaccination programme forward - 60%, 70%, 80% of the population was fully vaccinated - day by day. Statistics also showed that people who were vaccinated but infected with the virus had milder symptoms or are able to recover better than those who were not. But there is a proportion of residents who are not vaccinated - either because they cannot be, or do not want to be.

But enough of the virus already. We turn to our Butterfly of the Month for August 2021 - the now moderately rare Ultra Snow Flat (Tagiades ultra). It was re-discovered in the 1990s and reinstated in the Singapore Checklist as extant. Perhaps due to its behaviour and shy nature, this species has often been elusive. But there have been regular sightings by nature enthusiasts and photographers in various areas across the island. It is certainly a resident species, as long as its caterpillar host plant, Dioscorea glabra is available.

The Ultra Snow Flat is one of four species of the genus Tagiades found in Singapore. Referred to as the "Snow Flats" the common name probably refer to the snowy white hindwings (except for the Common Snow Flat, which has bluish-white undersides) and the typical behaviour of the Pyrginae subfamily of skippers that stop with their wings opened flat.

They are often active in the cooler hours of the day, in the morning and evening, and can also be observed feeding at flowering plants for nectar. They can be spotted sunbathing on the tops of leaves in the early morning hours, but when the sun shines and warms up the environment, the Ultra Snow Flat then changes its behaviour and perches on the undersides of leaves with its wings spread open flat. And this is how many photographers encounter this species.

A rare underside shot of the Ultra Snow Flat with its wings folded upright

The Ultra Snow Flat is dark blackish-brown above with a series of hyaline spots on the forewing. The large dark submarginal spots on the hindwing can sometimes be conjoined and there is high variability in the sizes and arrangements of these spots. But there is always a full complement of spots at the whitened tornal area of the hindwing. On the underside, the white area is more extensive.

An Ultra Snow Flat feeding at the flowers of Syzygium zeylanicum
A typical underleaf pose of the Ultra Snow Flat

The species is a fast flyer and can be quite skittish. When alarmed, it zips away and hides on the undersides of leaves, usually closer to the ground. Even when feeding at flowers, the wings are spread open flat, such that there are very few field shots showing the underside of the Ultra Snow Flat, where it closes its wings upright.

The caterpillars of the Ultra Snow Flat feeds on the vine Dioscorea glabra on which it has been successfully bred in Singapore. The host plant is usually found in the forested nature reserves of Singapore where it creeps low amongst the shrubbery. The full documentation of the life history of this species can be found here.

Text by Khew SK : Photos by ChngCK, Federick Ho, Khew SK, Henry Koh, Koh CH, Loke PF, Jensen Seah, Horace Tan and Tan BJ.