29 June 2009

Butterfly Conservation Dialogue

Butterfly Conservation Dialogue
with Dr Laurence Kirton (FRIM) and Horace Tan

On Sunday 28 Jun 09, about fifty members and friends of ButterflyCircle and NParks' staff were treated to a Butterfly Conservation Dialogue with prominent entomologist and butterfly guru from the Forest Reseach Institute of Malaysia (FRIM), Dr Laurence Kirton and our local expert 'cat-farmer' Horace Tan of ButterflyCircle.

Held at the Function Hall of the Botany Centre, Singapore Botanic Gardens, the audience had a thought provoking afternoon about butterfly conservation issues.

The dialogue was preambled by Khew, who shared some of the statistics of extant butterfly species in Singapore, and discussed a translocation project, Save the Harlequin. This project was featured in earlier articles in this Blog. With the successful completion of the Butterfly Garden at Hort Park for research and educational purposes, one of the objectives of the Butterfly Garden is to conduct research on some species which have gone extinct in Singapore, with the hope of eventual re-introduction back into Singapore. To address concerns of human intervention and interfering with the natural course of things in nature, studies will be carried out, as well as establishing sustainable critical mass of host plants for the respective species before any re-introduction is carried out.

Dr Laurence Kirton then took the stage, and shared some grim facts and figures about the world's de-forestation woes and the rapid rate of habitat loss in South East Asia. In terms of biodiversity conservation, Dr Kirton highlighted the iconic status of butterflies as a means of attracting attention on conservation issues. Butterflies being attractive and colourful, appeal to the masses and hence is a good taxonomic group to focus on, when talking about biodiversity conservation in South East Asian countries.

Dr Kirton then went on to discuss the issues of taxonomic problems in identifying species and the constant evolution of naming and revising the identification of genera, species and subspecies in the region. As new and relevant information from research become available, it is unavoidable that taxonomic names of butterflies are often amended and updated. He also cited areas where there is still much work to be done, like the early stages of butterflies.

Members of ButterflyCircle and friends in the audience

Aspects of butterfly distribution, identification of habitats and ecology were also discussed and their importance stressed. Dr Kirton shared his views on the importance of education and awareness and this is where interest groups like ButterflyCircle play an important role in helping create greater awareness of conservation and other related issues. With the pervasive use of the Internet, the use of IT has catapulted communication and interaction in the cyber world to a level which will continue to affect our lives, and keeping in touch within the nature circles and sharing of information is easier than in the past. There is also a need for good guide books and attractive literature to help the general public to learn and have a greater awareness of butterflies and the impact of environmental degradation on their survival.

Like all good talks, there will always be good food for the growling tummies as well

After a short tea break, Horace Tan, ButterflyCircle's Chief cat farmer and early stages expert, shared his graphic-intensive presentation on the wide spectrum of the characteristics of the life histories of Singapore's Butterfly Fauna. Keeping the audience thrilled with his super-macro shots of eggs, caterpillars and pupae, Horace also added his amazing time-lapse sequence animations of caterpillars eating out of their eggshells, and the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a pupa. It was an entertaining session as Horace presented early stages material seen for the first time in public.

Horace, our Chief Cat-Farmer, sharing the finer aspects of the life histories of butterflies

Dr Kirton then returned to the lectern to talk about his proposal for a standardisation of English Common names of butterflies. Whilst biologists and taxonomists embrace and prefer the use of scientific latin names, the importance of Common names becomes a critical issue with the ordinary folk and nature enthusiasts. Currently, common names are easily "invented" and spread across the region by individuals and authors of books. However, problems occur when a same species is called by several different common names, causing confusion amongst butterfly enthusiasts.

It was therefore timely that a common standard be proposed for Malaysian and Singaporean butterfly species. Dr Kirton went on to elaborate the terms of reference for the Working Group, Selection Committee and Main Steering Committee and a structured and systematic process for decision making. He also shared the Excel database on research into existing common names, and how volunteers can populate the database through their research and work. This can then be used as a reference for the Selection Committee to decide and register the most favoured common name for the two countries. Dr Kirton also invited volunteers to come forth to help with their time and research and to key in information into the database.

After a short but spirited Q&A session amongst the participants, the Butterfly Conservation Dialogue was called to a close at around 6:30pm. A good crowd stayed back for the full afternoon and this showed the enthusiasm and interest amongst the audience. It was ButterflyCircle's first successful talk to members and friends, and it is envisaged that there will be other future talks for members on a variety of subjects dealing with butterflies.

ButterflyCircle would like to extend its sincere appreciation to Dr Laurence Kirton, who came down all the way from Kuala Lumpur to share his wisdom and experience with Singapore, and Horace Tan for his excellent work in life histories and impressive presentations, and to all members of the audience who showed their enthusiasm and support for the dialogue.

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Bobby Mun

Special thanks to :
  • Director and General Manager, Singapore Botanic Gardens, for the complimentary use of the Function Hall at Botany Center
  • Senior Management and Staff of National Parks Board
  • Anthony Wong (for being Treasurer for the event)
  • Bobby Mun (for being official photographer for the event)

24 June 2009

Launch of the Butterfly Garden at Hort Park

Launch of the Butterfly Garden at Hort Park

An exterior view of the recently completed Butterfly Garden's flight cage at Hort Park

After months of design, planning and working with various collaborating partners, NParks' new Butterfly Garden was finally opened to the public on 23 May 2009. Providing a visual feast of multihued plants and butterflies, the Butterfly Garden enables visitors to learn about the different stages of metamorphosis from caterpillar into butterfly. At the same time, it serves as a butterfly breeding area and an experimental garden for research on suitable nectar (food) plants and host plants for breeding for a variety of butterfly species, including locally extinct species such as the Clipper (Parthenos sylvia lilacinus), Common Sergeant (Athyma perius perius) and Yellow Glassy Tiger (Parantica aspasia aspasia). ButterflyCircle members were actively involved in contributing expertise, design advice, photos and support for this project.

It all started with an idea from NParks' CEO, Mr Ng Lang, who thought that having a butterfly garden and flight cage at Hort Park would be a refreshing addition to the already feature-rich horticultural displays at this 23 hectare regional park, also known as the "Gardening Hub" of Singapore.

With this, planning for the Butterfly Garden started, with staff from the Hort Excellence Division, Gary Chua and Keneric Ng who were the primary "Energizer Bunnies" behind all the work of putting the Butterfly Garden together. NParks' in-house architect, Wong Wai Sung from the Facilties Management Division, designed the flight cage and caterpillar breeding facilities, the work was well under way by late 2008.

Architectural drawings of the Butterfly Flight Cage : Copyright - NParks

I recall a couple of meetings at my office, where the team sat and reviewed the drawings and fine-tuned the architectural details of the cage, including suggesting appropriate materials, designing the footpath widths so that visitors can watch the butterflies without getting into each others' way, organising the planting beds so that maintenance of the plants can be easily done and detailing the 'sally port' vestibule to minimise the escape of butterflies from the flight cage. One meeting also included the sponsors for the automatic misting system, Netafilm Ltd.

Further negotiations with the Penang Butterfly Farm were carried out, and at a visit to Hort Park with Joseph Goh, we sealed the deal for a year's sponsorship of the supply of butterfly pupae from Penang Butterfly Farm.

Work in progress with the main structural steel elements up and in place

With all the plans and arrangements in place, tenders were called for the construction works, and the construction was under way immediately after the New Year. The flight cage was completed some time in April, and the landscaping carried out over the next few weeks, whilst butterflies were introduce into the cage to 'test run' the facilities. Appropriate plants, both host and nectaring, were selected to enhance the horticultural aesthetics within the flight cage as well as add further colour and diversity to the plant inventory.

Finally, on 22 May 09, NParks held a media briefing to the Press and a short tour for the reporters. The next day, Saturday 23 May 09, the Butterfly Garden was opened to the public for the first time.

Our two key drivers of the project, Gary Chua and Keneric Ng

The 105 sqm theme garden comprises an enclosed area and a outdoor garden. The enclosed area is designed as a conducive breeding environment for the butterflies, and showcases native species as well as selected species that would be researched as subjects for a "Species Recovery Programme". Visitors would be able to observe the butterflies through a viewing window and enter the enclosed area during guided walks and on the last Saturday every month. The outdoor garden enables visitors to view the butterflies and their pupae on host plants in a natural setting. Educational signage and pupae display cases are installed at the garden for visitors to learn about the life cycle and habits of butterflies.

Khew showing the CEO of NParks around the Butterfly Flight Cage

Gary briefing the enthusiastic visitors to the Butterfly Garden

As part of the programme for the launch of the Butterfly Garden, two public talks were conducted, one by Mrs Rosalind Tan of Alexandra Hospital to showcase the "Healing Gardens of AH", and the 2nd talk by Khew SK on "Enhancing Butterfly Biodiversity in Urban Parks & Gardens".

Khew giving a public talk at the Launch of the Butterfly Garden at Hort Park

ButterflyCircle members helped to contribute their excellent photos for the A1 sized posters that adorn the walls of the Hort Park's Visitor Centre, as well as collaterals like the Butterfly Brochure as well as bookmarks.

ButterflyCircle members' work featured on A1 sized posters at the Hort Park Visitors' Centre

A special appreciation is extended to all ButterflyCircle members who turned out in full force to support the launch, as well as those who contributed their photographs and helped in one way or another. The collaboration between NParks and ButterflyCircle is a start of many exciting biodiversity conservation projects to come, and the success has encouraged us to play a more active and important role in helping more Singaporeans enjoy Nature's Flying Jewels.

Text by Khew SK ; Photos by Anthony Wong, , Bobby Mun, JZ and KhewSK

Acknowledgments :

Special thanks to :

  • Mr Ng Lang, Mr Kong Yit San, Ms Kartini Omar, Mr Gary Ng, Mr Wong Wai Sung and Mr Keneric Ng of the National Parks Board for their advice, support and collaboration on the Butterfly Garden Project.
  • Members of ButterflyCircle for their photos, advice and participation in the Butterfly Garden Project, Brochures, Posters, Bookmarks and other Collaterals.

20 June 2009

Life History of the Great Orange Awlet

Life History of the Great Orange Awlet (Burara etelka)

Butterfly Biodata:
Genus: Burara de Nicéville, 1895
Species: etelka Hewitson, 1866
Wingspan of Adult Butterfly: 60mm
Caterpillar Host Plants: Combretum sundaicum (Combretaceae)

Physical Description of Adult Butterfly:
Burara etelka (The Great Orange Awlet) is a rather large species with the wingspan up to 1cm longer than the look-alike and more common species, Burara harisa (The Orange Awlet). Above, the male is dark brown with no brand; the female is dark brown with basal halves of all wings shining greenish blue. Underneath, both sexes are shaded orange with the hindwings particularly so. Basal halves of the forewings are shaded purplish blue, more extensive and shining in the female. Both sexes have orange tornal cilia on the hindwings. The head, legs and the ventral surface of the the thorax are colored orange. Numerous orange hairs are also featured on the thorax and abdominal segments.

Two Burara etelka resting on stems in the nature reserve.

Another Burara etelka found in the nature reserve.

Field Observations of Butterfly Behaviour:
The adult of this species is rarely encountered in Singapore, due likely to their habit of being more active at dawn and dusk. In contrast, the caterpillars are more readily found in leaf shelters on its host plant, Combretum sundaicum, which is a common creeping weed in the Central Catchment Nature Reserve. As typical with other skippers, the adults fly with swift, strong and darting flights.

Early Stages:

Host plant: Combretum sundaicum.

The eggs are laid singly on the leaf upperside of a middle-aged or mature leaf of the host plant. Each egg is creamy white with a beige tinge. It is dome-shaped with a flat base. The micropylar sits atop and a number of vertical ridges running longitudinally from it. The diameter is about 1.2mm.

Two views of an egg of Burara etelka

Mature egg with a faint view of the head (left), empty egg shell (right)

It takes 3 days for the collected egg to hatch. The young caterpillar eats just enough of the shell to emerge, and has a length of about 3mm. Its pale brown body is cylindrical in shape with rather long lateral and sub-spiracular white setae. The large head is pale brown with black markings and bears similar white setae as those on the body. All instars of Burara etelka caterpillars feed on either the middle-aged or mature leaves of Combretum sundaicum, and ignore the young and tender leaves on new shoots.

Newly hatched 1st instar caterpillar, length: 3mm

The body soon takes on a green undertone after a few feeding sessions on the leaf. Its movement on leaf was observed to be rather quick-paced. As the growth continues in this first instar, faint lateral markings start to appear. By the time the caterpillar lies dormant for its moult to the 2nd instar, its length has reached 6mm and black rings are discernible on the body, one to each segment. The 1st instar takes a total of 2 days to complete.

1st instar caterpillar, length: 4mm

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

The body of the 2nd instar caterpillar has a ringed appearance with a black ring of irregular thickness and 4-5 white and yellow rings on each segment. The head is pale orange with two horizontal black stripes. Both the head and the body also feature short white setae. This instar lasts a total of 3 days with the body length reaching about 11-12mm.

2nd instar caterpillar, early in this stage, length: 7mm

2nd instar caterpillar, late in this stage. Lengths: 10mm (top); 12mm (bottom).

The 3nd instar caterpillar resembles the 2nd instar caterpillar closely in markings and coloration. This instar lasts a total of 3-5 days with the body length reaching about 18-19mm.

3rd instar caterpillar, early in this stage. Length: 11.5mm.

3nd instar caterpillar, late in this stage. Length: 14mm.

The 4th instar caterpillar is bright yellow in body color. A prominent and broad dorsal black stripe, running from the prothorax to the 7th abdominal segment, is featured with two finer white band embedded within. Each body segment has a large and irregularly-shaped black spot laterally, of which several are connected to the dorsal stripe. The head is orange with a broad black central and vertical stripe (split at upper end) crossed by two black horizontal stripes, giving it a close resemblance to some Chinese Opera masks. Both the body and the head also sport numerous short setae. This instar lasts 3-5 days with the body length reaching up to 28-29mm.

4th instar caterpillar, early in this stage, length: 20mm

4th instar caterpillar, late in this stage, length: 25mm

The 5th instar caterpillar has similar body color and markings to the 4th instar caterpillar with the only discernible difference being a greater proportion of black in the dorsal band, lateral body spots and head stripes. This instar takes about 4-6 days to complete with the body length reaching 37-38mm.

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

As is typical of most hesperiid species, the caterpillars of Burara etelka also build leaf shelters on the host plant. Typically a fragment of the leaf lamina is cut and folded inwards and secured with silk threads to create a sufficiently large void of space in which the caterpillar rests and hides between feeds.

The leaf shelter of a late instar caterpillar of Burara etelka sighted in the western nature
reserve with a bird paying close attention to it nearby.

A short sequence of a 5th instar caterpillar chomping on leaf lamina.

The 6th and final instar caterpillar continues the increase of the proportion of the dark color in various markings to the extent that the dark color switches its role to become the base color. Now yellow color is confined to oval lateral spots, a pair to each body segment. The dark base color reveals itself as dark reddish brown upon closer look. Again, numerous short and white setae covers the body and the head. This stage takes about 9-12 days to complete with the body length reaching 65-66mm.

6th instar caterpillar, early in this stage, length: 39mm

6th instar caterpillar, late in this stage, length: 55mm

The interesting change in appearance of markings on the posterior abdominal segments
from the 3rd to the 6th instar (left to right).

At the end of 6th instar, the body of the caterpillar shortens rather drastically to about 35mm in length. Soon it becomes dormant in its leaf shelter and enters the prepupatory phase which lasts for one day.

Two views of a pre-pupa of Burara etelka.

Pupation takes place within the leaf shelter. The pupa secures itself with its cremaster attached to a short transverse band on the leaf surface, and has a silk girdle. It has a short thorax, a rather long abdomen, a short and pointed rostrum. The body is initially pale pink to purplish with large yellow lateral spots and black markings. However within a day all yellow spots fade away with the base color becoming milky white. Length of pupae: 30-32mm.

Two views of a fresh pupa of Burara etelka

Two views of a pupa of Burara etelka, length: 30mm

After 9 days, the pupa becomes mostly black in color in the wing pads and in the body segments. Eclosion takes place the next day.

Two views of a mature pupa of Burara etelka, shortly before the eclosion event.

A newly eclosed Burara etelka drying its wings.

Another newly eclosed Burara etelka

Note: The above life history record is based on observations of three larvae collected and bred over their last three instars, yet another over its last five instars, and one bred from a collected egg, on five separate occasions over a period of 1.5 years. Six instars were evident in the last two larvae bred. However this does not preclude the possibility of utilization of five instars, typically of most hesperiid speces, in other Burara etelka larvae.

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

  • Butterflies of Thailand, Pisuth Ek-Amnuay, 1st Edition, 2006
Text by Horace Tan, Photos by Khew SK and Horace Tan