08 May 2009

Life History of the Tailed Jay

Life History of the Tailed Jay (Graphium agamemnon agamemnon)

Butterfly Biodata:
Genus: Graphium Scopoli, 1777
Species: agamemnon
Linnaeus, 1758
Subspecies: agamemnon
Linnaeus, 1758
Wingspan of Adult Butterfly: 70mm
Local Caterpillar Host Plants: Annona muricata (Annonaceae, common name: Soursop), Michelia alba (Magnoliaceae, common name: White Champaca), Annona cherimola (Annonaceae), Polyathia longifolia var. pendula (Annonaceae, common name: Ashoka Tree), and two plants (to be identified) found in Central Catchment Reserve.

Physical Description of Adult Butterfly:
As with most Graphium species, the wings are produced at the forewing apex and hindwing tornus and the inner margin of the hindwing bends inwards. Above, the Tailed Jay has apple-green spots of various sizes on a black background. Underneath, the same green spotting can be found against a purple-brown background, and additional red spots are featured on the hindwing. Each hindwing has a short tail at vein 4, longer in the female than in the male.

The upperside view of a Tailed Jay perching on a flower.

A female Tailed Jay visiting flowers at the fringe of the nature reserve.

A male Tailed Jay puddling on a wet ground in the nature reserve.

A male Tailed Jay perching on a branch in the cool morning air.

Field Observations of Butterfly Behaviour:
The swift-flying adults are not uncommon, and can be observed regularly in both nature reserves and urban parks. The adults are often sighted visiting flowers such as ixora or lantana blossom. The males of this species can be found feeding on roadside seepages or urine-tainted sand.

Early Stages:
The early stages of the Tailed Jay feed on young leaves of several plants in the Annonaceae family. One recently recorded local plant is Polyathia longifolia var. pendula (Ashoka Tree). There are also two other yet-to-be-identified host plants in the nature reserves. Eggs and early stages of the Tailed Jay are typically found on saplings of the host plants at low heights.

Host plant : Ashoka Tree. Left: far view of one tall tree (growing in a housing estate);
right: close-up on young leaves.

Un-identified local host plant #1, commonly found in the Central Catchment Nature Reserve.

Un-identified local host plant #2, leaves are covered with hair.

The eggs of the Tailed Jay are laid on young leaves of a sapling. The spherical egg is creamy white with a diameter of about 1.1mm.

Left: fresh egg; right: mature egg. Diameter: 1.1mm

A time-lapse hatching sequence of a Tailed Jay caterpillar

The egg takes 3 days to hatch, and the newly hatched has a body length of about 2.7mm. Typically, the entire egg shell is consumed by the newly hatched as its first meal. The body is initially pale yellowish brown but turning dark brown hours later. There are rather broad and white dorsal patches on thoracic segments and the posterior abdominal segments. A pair of yellowish brown lateral spines can be found on each of the three thoracic segments, and another pair at the anal segment. The body also features rows of short dorsal-lateral tubercles with long setae. Between feeds, the Tailed Jay caterpillar of all instars rests on the upper leaf surface, usually alongside the midrib.

Two views of a newly hatched Tailed Jay caterpillar.
Almost done with the egg shell in top view. Length: 2.7mm

Two views of a 1st instar caterpillar, several hours old, length: 3mm

After about three days of feeding on young and tender leaves, the 1st instar caterpillar grows to a length of about 6mm. Now the body looks pumped up, and assumes a yellowish brown coloration. The white dorsal patches on thoracic segments have faded away by this time. The moult to the 2nd instar takes place after a period of inactivity.

1st instar caterpillar, late in this stage, length: 6mm.

In the 2nd instar caterpillar, the thoracic segments are much enlarged from the 2nd to 3rd segment. The thoracic spines and the anal spines are pale yellowish brown. As the body grows to a length of 10mm in 3-4 days for this instar, the yellowish brown body color darkens to purplish brown.

Two views of a 2nd instar caterpillar, newly moulted, length: 6mm.

Two views of a 2nd instar caterpillar, late in this stage, length: 10mm

Field shots of a Tailed Jay caterpillar on the same leaf over the course of 2 days.
Left: 1st instar; right: early 2nd instar.

There is no drastic change in appearance in the newly moulted 3rd instar caterpillar. Noticeable are the color change of the thoracic splines to black, and the change to completely white anal spines. This instar takes another 3 days to complete with body grown to about 10mm in length.

Two views of a 3rd instar caterpillar, early in this stage, length: 10mm

As growth proceeds in the 3rd instar, the white dorsal patch on the posterior abdominal segments gradually changes to yellow. This instar takes another 3-4 days to complete with the body grown to about 21mm in length. Numerous small markings, dark in color, appear on the body surface towards the end of this instar. At the same time, the thoracic and anal spines become black with a bluish sheen at the distal end.

Two views of a 3rd instar caterpillar, midway in this stage, length: 15mm

Two views of a 3rd instar caterpillar, late in this stage, length: 21mm

The body of the 4th instar caterpillar is mainly yellowish green and speckled with small dark green markings. The yellow dorsal patches on posterior abdominal segments have become less well defined in its boundary. Each thoracic spine on the 3rd thoracic segment now has an orange circular base. This instar lasts a further 3-4 days with body length reaching about 26mm.

Two views of a 4th instar caterpillar, length: 25mm

The 5th instar caterpillar resembles the late 4th instar caterpillar, but without the dorsal patch and with the body color in a more uniform colour of yellowish green to orchre-yellow.
The 5th instar lasts for 5-6 days, and the body length reaches 40-43mm.

Two views of a 5th instar caterpillar, early in this stage, length: 26mm

Two views of a 5th instar caterpillar, late in this stage, length: 39mm

Field shots of Tailed Jay caterpillars. Top: 3rd instar; bottom: 5th instar

Toward the end of the 5th instar, the body gradually shortens in length. At the same time, the body turns completely yellow with all markings faded away. After doing some wandering around for a pupation site, the caterpillar eventually comes to rest on the surface of a leaf in an upright position and becomes a pre-pupatory larva. Here the caterpillar prepares a silk pad, and a silk girdle, both of which are critical for the success of the pupation event later on.

Two views of a pre-pupatory larva of the Tailed Jay.

Pupation takes place a day later. The pupa suspends itself with a silk girdle from the leaf surface, further secured with and a firm anchor at the posterior end. The pupa is yellowish green, about 33mm in length and has a slender and obtusely pointed thoracic process. The abdomen has two dorsal carinae. Reddish brown ridges run laterally to the tip of the mesothoracic horn which is directed forwards.

A time-lapse pupation sequence of a Tailed Jay caterpillar

Two views of a fresh pupa.

The pupal period lasts for 12-13 days, and the pupa turns black in the wing pads the night before eclosion. The apple-green spots on the forewings also become visible through the pupal skin at this stage. The adult butterfly emerges the next morning to commence the ``high-flying'' phase of its life cycle.

Two views of a mature Tailed Jay pupa.

A time-lapse eclosion sequence (partial) of a Tailed Jay adult

A newly eclosed Tailed Jay resting on the pupal case.


  • The Butterflies of The Malay Peninsula, A.S. Corbet and H.M. Pendlebury, 4th Edition, Malayan Nature Society.
  • The Butterflies of Hong Kong, M. Bascombe, G. Johnston, F. Bascombe, Princeton University Press 1999
Text by Horace Tan, Photos by Anthony Wong, Mark Wong, Henry Koh, Tan Ben Jin, Sunny Chir and Horace Tan


Alina Vamanu said...

Incredible pictures and wonderfully detailed commentary! Thank you, I check your blog regularly and am always happy to find new things!

I was wondering whether you guys would like to identify some butterflies for me. The pics were taken at the NYC Vivarium by a friend of mine, and I've been able to identify the Atlas Moth, but not many other butterflies beyond that. I'm an absolute beginner in these matters; Nabokov has opened my eyes to the butterfly world and I am absolutely thrilled about its richness, but it will take a while for me to learn more -- I need all the help and guidance I can get ;-)

Again, thank you! I admire your passion and the beauty of your work!

Commander said...

Thanks for visiting, Alina, and your encouraging comments. :)

Send us the link to your photos that you need some help in identifying and we'll try our best. Though, if they are not South East Asian butterflies, we may find identifying them challenging as well.

Do visit us again! :)

Alina Vamanu said...

Thank you so much for your quick reply!

My friend's pics are available at: http://picasaweb.google.com/alvamanu/ButterfliesAmericanMuseumOfNaturalHistoryVivarium#5333631462299180498

I greatly appreciate your willingness to take the time and look at them! Please feel free to add comments, if you can identify these beautiful creatures :-)

Thank you, and I will definitely continue accessing your blog!

April Lorier said...

This entire life sequence was too wonderful to adequately appreciate with words. Those time sequenced videos were something I have never seen before. How in the world did you get those? By the way, it's nice to finally see ONE creation where the female is actually prettier than the male (I think)!! This is the most wonderful site and my soul is always refreshed when I come here. Thank you!

Commander said...

Thanks, April. We always love your very encouraging comments on the blog.

The life histories articles are the result of a lot of patience and hard work by my associate, Horace. He's the one who should be complimented for his saintly patience in recording these photos!

Commander said...

Alina, could you or your friend leave me an email address so that I can write to you on the possible IDs of what you've shot on that trip to the NYC vivarium? Thanks! :)

Alina Vamanu said...

Sure, I'd be glad to! My address is alvamanu@gmail.com

Many, many thanks! Can't wait! :-)

Commander said...

Hi Alina. I've already sent you an email. Let me know if you've received it.

Have a nice day! :)

Alina Vamanu said...

Thank you so much for taking the time to ID my butterflies! You guys are wonderful, I really appreciate your dedication.

Will be accessing your blog regularly. Your pics are beautiful and your commentaries so interesting I practically want to take everything in.

Have you read Nabokov's Butterflies? I'd be curious to know what you thought about it, if you have. It's partially available at http://books.google.com/books?id=kJcP1P7vfhEC&client=firefox-a


Dr.K.Saji said...

Incredible series !!
You are setting a standard for butterfly life cycle uploads...
Hats off to your committment...
I have a few life cycle uploads in Flickr.com. Cannot be compared to this high standard ones..

Horace said...

Hi Alina, Khew aka Commander is out of town these few days, and he will only be able to respond to you when he returns.

Hi Dr Saji, Thank you for your kind and encouraging words. Your photographs of various subjects of nature, in addition to the life cycles, are simply amazing and of very high standard! Thank you for sharing life cycles of some species from India which we do not have the privilege to appreciate and breed in Singapore.

mdiag said...

Thank you for this site!!! My kids found a Tailed Jay in the hallway of our building today, and how much more wonderful it is to show them life in action, instead of just another photo. Melissa

Horace said...

Hi Melissa,
What an interesting find your kids made! Great to know that this blog article proves to be informative to you and your children. :)


Akshay Manjunath Neo Naturalist said...

Wow ! Truly amazing documentary ! Great work !

I recently got 3 caterpillars of tailed jay . They are at 5th instar stage ! And simultaneously I got 3 eggs at my farm house on polyathilia longifolia tree .

When I was looking at articles on tailed jay life cycle , I got this was the article which drew my attention and helped me a lot to know about their life cycle .

After reading your article m soo excited to witness the life cycle of larvae . Great article indeed !

I'll surely get back to you with my documentary !

Cheers ,


Horace said...

Thanks for the kind words, Askshay. :)
I can definitely sense your joy in breeding your Tailed Jay caterpillars.

Looking forward to reading about your documentation.

Gouri said...

This is just wonderful!
I had a tailed jay on my michelia Champaca some months back. I know nothing of butterflies, and was just thrilled to find one with its pupal case. Today I had some time and tried to identify the butterfly, and stumbled on your blog. You have documented this so well ... next time I can perhaps capture most of the lifecycle events of a tailed jay in my tiny terrace garden!

Horace said...

I am glad that this blog article is useful to you in some way. You are so lucky to have a Tailed Jay visiting the plant in your garden. :)

Unknown said...


A wonderful article yet again!

We had found a Tailed Jay caterpillar in its fifth instar, about to be a pupa, and could identify it because of your blog. Thanks a lot!

After this caterpillar hatched into a beautiful butterfly (couldn't identify whether it was a male or a female, is there any way to identify?), we found one more, in its 4th instar. But the season had now changed and the butterfly that hatched out of its pupa was visibly smaller than the previous one! Could it be because of the sexual dimorphism? or due to the change in season? Food scarcity could not be an issue, as the caterpillar was kept in a safe place and was fed fresh leaves everyday!

Horace said...

The difference between the male and female adults is mentioned in this blog article under physical description.

Yes, the size of the adult could differ between the two sexes but it could also differ due to the variable amount/quality of nutrients present in the food source. Some individual might just be smaller simply because it is coded in their genes.

Unknown said...

I have one in my house , i think it's 5th instar now , can't wait for it to become a butterfly😄

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Horace said...

There could be a number of reasons why the caterpillar stops moving.
If it is in the final instar and has consumed enough leaves, then it is likely to enter the pre-pupal phase.
Otherwise, the caterpillar might be parasited or diseased.

Unknown said...

Please help....I just found a caterpillar that fell from a tree, he looks weak so I keep him, but he can not afford to climb up, so it seems he started to be a cocoon in the leaves I put on the bottom of the jar, because there is a thread, what should I do? Should I hang the leaves upright?

Horace said...

Caterpillar of Tailed Jay?
If it is, then hang the leaf upright as you mentioned and hope that it succeeds in securing itself for the pupation event to conclude in due course.

Unknown said...

Yes it's tailed jay, Thanks for your suggestion, I'm very worried😟😟

Unknown said...

Hi... I have tailed jay eggs here, 2 of them already hatched , but the other 4 have not hatch for about 5 days! When i check the egg , i saw 2 black dot , is it still alive or it's mites ??

anonymous said...

This website is amazing. I spent hours researching online trying to identify the caterpillar I accidentally found munching on a soursop tree in our front yard in Jakarta yesterday to no avail until I stumbled upon your website. I was finally able to identify the cute fat green caterpillar I found. It is indeed a Tailed Jay! And it looks like it will pupate very soon.

Thanks so much for documenting, writing and posting such detailed life history of the Tailed Jay. I've learned a lot. I don't think there's any other source online that has as detailed information as what you have here. Your work for this website is truly inspiring. I wish there were more people like you who appreciate the awesome nature and biodiversity we have here in Southeast Asia! Most of the information published out there don't pertain to our specific region. Most are about America and Europe. I feel like there is still so much in Southeast Asia that are yet to be covered and discovered. Our natural history is rich and vast, but not many people really appreciate it. That's why I truly admire your work and dedication. God bless you.


Unknown said...

Hi, I found 3 Caterpillars, could identify only because of ur wonderful blog.. But the problem is 3 of them became pupa but after 4or5 days a light yellowish worm came out of it.. Is it stilla alive or dead? Is it normal??