30 May 2009

Another Re-Discovery for Singapore!

ButterflyCircle Records another Re-Discovery for Singapore!
The Moth Butterfly

It's a Moth! It's a Butterfly! It's a... Moth Butterfly!?

ButterflyCircle member Sunny Chir was out on his usual hunts in Singapore's nature reserves and was chasing a skittish Bamboo Tree Brown when this unusual deformity flew and perched nearby. After getting a few record shots and maneuvering for a better position, the unidentified took off erratically.

When he posted the shot, it raised a few eyebrows, but the initial thought was that this was just a deformed butterfly (or moth). Then entered our veteran butterfly expert from Koh Samui, Les Day, who suggested that it could be a Moth Butterfly (Liphyra brassolis abbreviata). A few clicks of the mouse on the usual Internet search engines (isn't technology great?), and we found several sites which featured pictures of the species that matched what Sunny shot.

So we welcome species #293 (the total number on the Singapore checklist is still be sorted out with a few previous finds yet to be validated) to Singapore. It was recorded in the checklists of the early authors and the two definitive references for the Malaysian and Singaporean butterflies, "Butterflies of the Malay Peninsula" and "Butterflies of West Malaysia and Singapore" both recorded Liphyra brassolis abbreviata to be extant in Singapore.

Thus far, it has not been seen - until now in May 2009, that it has been spotted and recorded with a high level of certainty.

The Moth Butterfly as Liphyra brassolis abbreviata is called belongs to the subfamily Miletinae of the family Lycaenidae. It is described as "of very large size, stout build and moth like appearance. The palpi are very small, and the proboscis is wholly atrophied, so that the adult cannot feed".

The wings of the Moth Butterfly are brownish orange with black distal spots and borders on both wings. In the male, the borders are much broader. The undersides are paler and browner with the markings obscure. The species is crepuscular, and the flight is erratic and moth-like.

The caterpillar of the Moth Butterfly is carnivorous, like the majority of the species in the sub-family Miletinae, and in Malaysia and Singapore, is known to feed on the larvae of the Weaver Ant, Oecophylla smaragdina, better known locally as the Kerengga ants. The caterpillar lives in the nests of the ants, feeding off their young. As it features a smooth, elliptical shape, with a rim around the periphery, giving it an almost "tank-like" armour which protects the caterpillars from the ants. Pupation also takes place in the ants' nest in a hardened skin which serves again as an armoured carapace for the pupa. The wings and thorax of the newly eclosed adult butterfly are covered with loose white scales, whilst the abdomen is covered with buff-coloured filamentous scales both of which are used as a protection against the ants, whose antennae, mandibles and legs are enmeshed with the scales. Thus distracted, the ants busy themselves with removing these obstructions from themsleves, the butterfly crawls out of the nest and makes its escape to freedom.

This site by Kudo Seiya shows pictures of the early stages of the Moth Butterfly and also shots of the adult butterfly.

The video below (link provided by Keith Wolfe of USA) shows the amazing adaptation and survival techniques of how the caterpillar protects itself from any attack by the ants, whilst helping itself to the ants' larvae!

After all this time, we now know for certain that this very rare species of butterfly still exists in little Singapore!

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Sunny Chir

References & Acknowledgments :
  • The Butterflies of The Malay Peninsula, A.S. Corbet and H.M. Pendlebury, 4th Edition, Malayan Nature Society.
  • Photos of early stages and adult butterflies by Kudo Seiya
  • Link to YouTube video of the Moth Butterfly from Keith Wolfe

22 May 2009

Life History of the Malayan Plum Judy

Life History of the Malayan Plum Judy (Abisara saturata kausambioides)

Butterfly Biodata:
Genus: Abisara C. & R. Felder, 1860
Species: saturata Moore, 1878
kausambioides de Nicéville, 1896
Wingspan of Adult Butterfly: 45mm
Caterpillar Local Host Plants:
Ardisia elliptica (Myrsinaceae), Embelia ribes (Myrsinaceae).

Physical Description of Adult Butterfly:
Above, the male is deep crimson brown and entirely unmarked; the female is much paler and has a diffuse white subapical patch on the forewing, and black submarginal spots in spaces 1b, 4 and 5 on the hindwing. Underneath, for both sexes, the underside is paler, and each wing has a pair of diffuse, pale-purplish, post-discal bands. The outer band on the hindwing has a series of black, white-edged, submarginal spots in spaces 1b, 4, 5 and 6, that in space 1b being double. The female has broader and paler transverse lines than the male. In both sexes the hindwing is prominently angled at vein 4.

A female Malayan Plum Judy perching on a leaf.

Another female Malayan Plum Judy

A sunbathing male Malayan Plum Judy in an urban hill park.

Anothe male Malayan Plum Judy in the Southern Ridges.

Left: A male Malayan Plum Judy opening its wings to sunbathe.
Right: Another male with half-open wings, the angle at which light reflected gives the
lustrous blue appearance

Field Observations of Butterfly Behaviour:
The adults are often seen perching on leaves with half open wings, turning and hopping from one perch to the next. They only take flights on bright sunny days. This species was only sighted in the Island of Pulau Tekong before the turn of the century. In recent years, it has appeared in numbers on the main Singapore island where its host plant,
Ardisia elliptica, are thriving. It is now considered a resident species in the Southern Ridges where both of its recorded local host plants, A. elliptica and E. ribes, can be found.

Early Stages:
The host plant, A. elliptica, is a large shrub or small tree. The leaves are simple, alternate, grandulate, obovate and leathery, 8-12 cm long and have nearly invisible nerves. The pink flowers occur 6 to 8 in an umbel. In the wild, the plant grows in tidal swamps and muddy river banks. In urban settings, this plant has been commonly cultivated as hedges. The other host plant,
Embelia dasythyrsa, is a woody climber with simple, alternate and lanceolate leaves. This plant is found along trails in the Central Catchment Nature Reserves and the Southern Ridges. The immature stages of the Malayan Plum Judy feed on the relatively young leaves of the host plant, typically on the underside. The first instar caterpillars graze on the leaf surface, and the later instars nibble along the leaf edges. Between feeds, the caterpillars of all instars rests on the leaf underside.

Host plant : Ardisia elliptica

Host plant: Embelia ribes.

Left: A mating pair of Malayan Plum Judy; Right: a female Malayan Plum Judy ovipositing

Each egg is laid singly on the underside of a leaf on the host plant, typically close to the leaf edge. Each egg is pale translucent green, somewhat conical in shape with a base diameter of about 0.7mm. The surface is smooth and has a mid-level belt of fine hairs encircling the egg.

Two eggs of the Malayan Plum Judy. Diameter: 0.7mm.

Two views of a mature egg of the Malayan Plum Judy.
Both the mandible and setae are visible through the egg shell.

A time-lapse hatching sequence of a Malayan Plum Judy caterpillar.
The caterpillar nibbles away at the egg shell in clockwise manner
until the hole is large enough for its exit.

Two views of a newly hatched caterpillar, pausing before it goes on to finish the egg shell.

It takes about 4 days for the egg to hatch. The young caterpillar consumes part of the egg shell to emerge. With a length of about 1.9-2.0mm, it has a pale greenish and cylindrical body with long setae dorso-laterally (dark) and sub-spiracularly (white). The body color changes to a brighter shade of yellow with a green undertone as it feeds and grows.

Two views of a 1st instar caterpillar, late in this stage, length: 3mm

An 1st instar caterpillar showing us the result of its grazing work.

The first instar lasts for 2 days and the body length reaches about 3mm. Prior to the moult to 2nd instar, the body shortens and takes on a pumped up appearance. This shortening routine also occurs prior to each of the subsequent moults.

Before-and-after pic of the moult to the 2nd instar. Top: very late 1st instar;
Bottom: freshly emerged 2nd instar eating the excuvia (shed larval larval skin).

The body color of the 2nd instar caterpillar is yellow with a greenish undertone. Overall, the appearance is little changed from the 1st instar. This instar lasts for 3 days and the caterpillar grows to a length of about 6mm before the moult to the 3rd instar.

Two 2nd instar caterpillars, lengths: 4 and 4.5mm

Two views of 2nd instar caterpillar, late in this stage. length: 6mm.

The following before-and-after pictures features the moulting events for two caterpillars. The upper caterpillar moulted first, and the lower one followed suit minute later.

A sequence showing the moult to the 3rd instar for two Malayan Plum Judy caterpillars.
The third picture gives the time-lapse sequence for one of them.

The 3rd instar caterpillar is yellowish green with a much greater emphasis in green. The body surface is marked with numerous tiny whitish/pale-greenish markings. As the caterpillar grows rapidly in this instar, small dark spots appear dorsally between body segments. Laterally, similar spots also appear, one to each segment. After 3 days in this stage with the body length reaching a maximum of about 12mm, the next moult brings the caterpillar to its 4th and final instar.

Two 3rd instar caterpillars, early in this stage, length: 8mm.

Two views of a 3rd instar caterpillar, late in this stage, length: 12mm

A 3rd instar caterpillar, very late in this stage, prior to its moult, length: 10.5mm

The 4th instar caterpillar resembles the 3rd instar caterpillar but with a much denser set of
sub-spiracular setae. The body is mainly green in color. The head, which is colored yellow in the first three instars, is now green/yellowish-green.

Two views of 4th instar caterpillar, early in this instar, lenght: 10.5mm.

Two views of a a 4th instar caterpillar, length: 20mm.

The 4th instar lasts for 4 days and the body grows up to a length of about 23-24mm. On the last day of this instar, the caterpillar ceases food intake and its body shrinks in length. It then finds a spot on the leaf underside where it spins a silk pad and a silk girdle to secure itself for the upcoming pupation event.

Two views of a pre-pupatory larve of the Malayan Plum Judy

After one day of the pre-pupal phase, pupation takes place. The light-green pupa has a diamond-shaped outline, being broad at mid-body and pointed at two ends. The body has two prominent black dorsal spots on the leading abdominal segment and a number of pale green spots, four to each segment, on the remaining segments. Laterally, there are some hairs running along the fringe of the body. Each pupa is 13-14mm in length.

Two views of a fresh pupa of the Malayan Plum Judy

Six 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.

Two views of the mature pupa of a male Malayan Plum Judy.

A newly eclosed male Malayan Plum Judy drying its wings near its pupal case


  • The Butterflies of The Malay Peninsula, A.S. Corbet and H.M. Pendlebury, 4th Edition, Malayan Nature Society.
  • Life Histories of Asian Butterflies, Vol. II, Igarashi S. and Fukuda H., Tokai University Press, 2000.
Text by Horace Tan, Photos by Benedict Tay, Mark Wong, Sunny Chir and Horace Tan

16 May 2009

A "Politically Incorrect" Butterfly

The Nigger (Orsotriaena medus cinerea)
A "Politically Incorrect" Butterfly

Amongst amateurs, hobbyists and even serious enthusiasts, it has always been easier to identify and refer to butterflies by their English common names rather than struggle with tongue-twisting Latin scientific names. Hence for many species, various English names have been coined by collectors and researchers for the butterflies - the names given are often associated with the physical appearance of the butterfly, although the names for the same species may vary from country to country.

Over the years, the English common names have been used by collectors, amateur hobbyists, nature photographers and butterfly watchers. We often wonder how the species got their names, as some can be amusing whilst others sport rather curious names.

Of all the species, there is one that is noteworthy of caution whenever a butterfly watcher may inadvertently shout out its name in the wrong company! This species is the Nigger (Orsotriaena medus cinerea). I did a bit of research into early references and was rather surprised to find the 1st Edition of the Butterflies of the Malay Peninsula by A.S. Corbet and H.M. Pendlebury, on page 132 referring to this species as the Nigger. This edition was first published in January 1934!

A mating pair of the Nigger

In today's politically complex and racially sensitive environment, the use of an undesirable word in the wrong part of the world may cause a person to be faced with a lawsuit, bodily harm, or encounter other more serious consequences. The name of this poor butterfly is today deemed derogatory, offensive, racially prejudiced and deeply disparaging!

It is interesting that, in the course of evolution of the English language, words used in the late 19th century, and the early 20th century, that are seemingly innocent and simple, are now bestowed totally new meanings and connotations that are politically incorrect or just undesirable. How complicated our world has become!

It is rather unfortunate that any reference to the common English name of Orsotrieana medus cinerea has to now be tempered with caution and care. I am quite sure that our two late Englishmen authors, Mr Corbet and Mr Pendlebury, bless their souls, did not foresee that their naming of such a common and insignificant butterfly, may in today's world, cause unnecessary controversy.

A Crab Spider makes a meal of a Nigger

So why is the Nigger named so? It may be difficult to reason why, without venturing into a speculative adventure of the association of the physical attributes of this butterfly, and the metaphors that they carry. Just because the butterfly is dark and plain doesn't necessarily mean that it had to be prejudicially associated with a particular dark complexioned race of people!

The Nigger is dark brown above, and unmarked. The undersides feature a prominent clear white stripe that extends from the costa of the forewing to the tornus of the hindwing. There are two submarginal ocelli on the forewing beneath, and three on the hindwing.

The species is relatively common in grassy areas, but usually lurking in the shade. It is a weak flyer, remaining close to the ground as it flutters skittishly from perch to perch. Its caterpillars feed on grasses.

A cute "baby photo" of the Nigger

To most observers, the Nigger is rather unattractive and as it is common, it usually tends to attract very little attention amongst butterfly watchers. However, this unassuming butterfly has its own beauty, when one takes a closer look at the wings and the ocelli.

And so this humble species of butterfly continues its rather low profile existence, totally oblivious to the debatable controversy that its unmentionable common name may cause in today's complex and politically sensitive world.

Text by Khew SK ; Photos by Khew SK & Tan BJ

References :

  • Butterflies of the Malay Peninsula 1st Edition January 1934 : Published by Kyle, Palmer & Co Ltd, Kuala Lumpur
  • The Global Language Monitor : The Global Language Monitor documents, analyzes, and tracks the latest trends in word usage and word choices, and their impact on the various aspects of culture, with a particular emphasis upon Global English.

Disclaimer : It is not the intention of the Author of this Blog to cause any distress nor controversy to any person or organisation with the use of politically sensitive words. This article merely highlights and calls to the attention of butterfly enthusiasts that the use of English common names of butterflies that may have undesirable impact should be dispensed with due consideration and care.

13 May 2009

Butterfly of the Month - May 2009

Butterfly of the Month - May 2009
The Colour Sergeant (Athyma nefte subrata)

The month of May is often the peak of the butterfly season, and many species that are seldom seen are out and about. We have always wondered where these butterflies go when they are 'off season'. It's one of the mysteries that Mother Nature keeps close to her chest, no doubt, and we'll continue to spend year after year wondering...

This month, we feature a species of the Nymphalidae, the Colour Sergeant. The species, belonging to the genus Athyma, are robust fliers, with their strong rapid wing flaps, and gliding flight, and very often perched on the tops of leaves, just frustratingly out of reach of the photographers' lenses. The English common name Sergeant was probably coined for the striped appearance of most of the species in the genus, albeit some have the appearance of three stripes, whilst others don't.

The male Colour Sergeant is a rich velvety black, with the white stripes tinged with blue. At certain angles, the blue tint appear to be more extensive when viewed with a side light. In Singapore, individuals with orange subapical spots have been observed with regularity, and it poses a question as to whether the males have two different 'forms' as well. Males with the typical white subapical spots are also seen in the company of those with orange subapical spots.

The female Colour Sergeant occurs in two distinct forms and both are quite different in appearance from the male. In the female form-neftina, the wings are marked with broad orange-brown stripes arranged in the usual horizontal striped manner, consistent with the species. Form-neftina is by far the commoner of the two female forms and is as often encountered as the males of the species. A favourite food source of the species is the sugary ripened fruits of the Singapore Rhododendron (Melastoma malabathricum).

The female form-subrata is a dark dull chocolate brown with narrower and diffuse brown markings. This female form is rare, and from our rough field sighting statistics, the orange female form probably outnumber the brown form by at least 20:1. It would be interesting to find out from breeding experiments what the ratios actually are. The flight and general behaviour of both female forms are not indifferent from each other, and the butterflies are usually alert and skittish, taking off in rapid fashion the moment they sense danger approaching.

The Colour Sergeant is moderately common, and is found with regularity in urban parks and gardens as well as in the fringe forested areas of Singapore's nature reserves. The caterpillars of this species have been bred on two species of Glochidion in Singapore - G. borneensis and G. brunneum. Another host plant with large hairy leaves, hitherto unidentified, has also been observed as a host plant.

A newly eclosed female Colour Sergeant looking towards the blue sky before taking off on its maiden flight

The Colour Sergeant is the commonest of the four species of the genus Athyma found in Singapore, and the only species that has 'coloured' females, as all the other species are typically black and white.

Text by Khew SK ; Photos by Anthony Wong, Federick Ho, Khew SK & Tan Ben Jin