16 February 2013

Life History of the Tawny Coster

Life History of the Tawny Coster (Acraea terpsicore)

Butterfly Biodata:
Genus: Acraea Fabricius, 1807
Species: terpsicore Fabricius, 1793
Wingspan of Adult Butterfly: 53-64mm
Caterpillar Local Host Plants: Passiflora foetida (Passifloraceae, common names: stinking passionflower, love-in-a-mist), Passiflora suberosa (Passifloraceae, common name: corky-stemmed passion flower), Passiflora edulis (Passifloraceae, common name: passion fruit), Tunera ulmifolia (Passifloraceae, common name: Yellow Alder).

A female Tawny Coster visiting the Ixora flowers.

A male Tawny Coster.

A sunbathing male Tawny Coster .

Physical Description of Adult Butterfly:
Above, the male is deep orange while the female is pale tawny yellow. The forewing has two transverse black spots in the cell, a broader spot at cell-end bar and a discal series of black spots in spaces 2-6 and 10. Its costal margin and termen are black. The hindwing has a black spot in the cell, a basal series of 4-5 black spots, a sub-costal spot and a discal series of spots. The termen is edged with a black marginal band which has a series of small spots in ground colour embedded. Underneath, the wings are salmon orange in the male and pale tawny yellow in the female. Both wings have black markings as per the upperside. The forewing coloration becomes paler and turns whitish towards the apex and the termen. Unlike the smallish spots on the upperside, a series of large, prominent white spots are embedded in the broad black terminal margin on the hindwing. Antennae are black, head and thorax are black spotted with pale yellow and white.

Field Observations of Butterfly Behaviour:
This migrant species was recently discovered in Singapore in 2006 (refer to this blog article for a report of its discovery in Singapore). Since then, it has established a firm foothold and can be considered a relatively common species in Singapore. Across the island, Tawny Coster can be found flying in wastelands and park lands where its favourite host plant, Passiflora foetida, grows in relative abundance. The adults have the habit of visiting flowers for nectar and are sluggish and gentle on the wings.

Early Stages:
The local host plant adopted by Tawny Coster as it spred quickly across the island is Passiflora foetida, a member of the Passifloraceae family commonly found in wastelands. A lesser used plant in the wild is Passiflora suberosa. In captive setting, the Tawny Coster has also been found to feed on Passiflora edulis (Passion Fruit).

Local host plant #1: Passiflora foetida

Local host plant #2: Passiflora suberosa

A group of Tawny Coster caterpillars feeding on Passiflora edulis.

Local host plant #4: Tunera umlifolia

The caterpillars of the Tawny Coster feed on the leaves, young shoots, tendrils and outer surface of young stems of the host plant. They are gregarious throughout all six instars of the larval stage, often eating, resting and moulting together in groups. However, not all caterpillars from the same clutch of eggs develop at the same rate. Of all who survive the larval stage, the leading group could reach the pupal stage earlier than the slowest ones by up to a week or so.
A mating pair of Tawny Coster (male left, female right).

Another mating pair of Tawny Coster.

It is interesting to note that Tawny Coster is one of a group of butterflies where the ovipositing females feature a sphragis (copulatory plug) which is formed after a mating session (caused by a waxy substance deposited by the male) for the purpose of preventing the female from further matings.

A female Tawny Coster in the midst of ovipositing on the underside of a leaf of P. foetida.

Close-up view of the abdomen of an ovipositing female, showing the sphragis.

A mother Tawny Coster lays its eggs in a tight cluster on the underside of a leaf of the host plant. The cluster size varies from just a few eggs (less than ten) or up to 50-60 eggs. Each yellowish egg is olive-shaped with a ribbed surface. It has a height of about 0.8-0.85mm, and a cross-sectional diameter of about 0.7mm.

A mid-sized cluster of (29) eggs of the Tawny Coster.

Another view of the same cluster of eggs.

A close-up view of two eggs in the cluster.

Each egg takes about 3-4 days to hatch. The infant caterpillar nibbles away an upper portion of the egg shell in the hatching process. The newly hatched has a pale yellowish brown cylindrical body with an initial length of about 1.8mm. The body is covered in a grid of greyish tubercles, each of which has a single black setae exuding from it. The head is black. The young caterpillar feeds by either skimming the lamina on a young leaf or nibbles away at the tip of a young shoot.

Mature eggs with the black head visible through the egg shell.

Two views of a newly hatched caterpillar, length: 1.8mm.

A group of newly hatched caterpillars next ot their empty egg shells.

As the 1st instar caterpillar feeds and grows, its body segments take on a bright yellowish brown coloration. It grows to a length of 4mm in the 1st instar which lasts about 2-2.5 days.

Two views of a 1st instar caterpillar, length: 3mm.

A group of 1st instar caterpillars feeding gregariously on a leaf of P. foetida.

A group of 1st instar caterpillars, dormant prior to the moult to the 2nd instar, on the remnant of leaf which the group had devoured.

The 2nd instar caterpillar is orangy brown in body base colour and features a dark brown to black head. The fine and long setae in the 1st instar are replaced by rows of black spines which occur dorso-laterally, laterally and sub-spiracularly. This instar lasts 2-3 days with the body length reaching about 6.5mm before the next moult.

Two views of a newly moulted 2nd instar caterpillar, length: 3mm.

Two views of a 2nd instar caterpillar, late in this stage, length: 5mm.

The 3rd instar caterpillar does not feature any drastic change in physical appearance from the 2nd instar. Small and inconspicuous pale whitish patches occur ventrally. The body length reaches up to 11mm in 2-3 days before the moult to the next instar.

Top: newly moulted 3rd instar with both spines and head yet to turn black and dark brown respectively. Bottom: a 3rd instar caterpillar, late in this stage, length: 11mm.

A late 3rd instar caterpillar (bottom) seen next to a late 4th instar caterpillar (top), both from the same clutch of eggs and are dormant prior to their respective moult.

The 4th instar caterpillar has a close resemblance to the 3rd instar caterpillar. There are minor changes such as the paler coloration in the first two thoracic segments, the head as well as larger ventral patches which are now more whitish in coloration. The 4th instar lasts about 3-5 days with body length reaching about 14-15mm.

Two views of a 4th instar caterpillar, early in this stage, length: 10.5mm.

Two views of a 4th instar caterpillar, late in this stage, length: 14.5mm.

A clip of a Tawny Coster caterpillar moulting from 4th to 5th instar, complete with stages of spine inflation and eating of exuvia.

The next moult brings the caterpillar to its 5th and penultimate instar. The caterpillar is little changed in appearance coming into this instar. Visible changes are the continuing paling in coloration of the head and first 2-3 body segments, and the increase in the size and prominence of the ventral whitish patches. This instar lasts for 5-7 days and the body length reaching up to 21-22mm.

Two views of a 5th instar caterpillar, early in the stage, length: 15mm.

Two views of a 5th instar caterpillar, late in this stage, length: 21mm.

A group of late instar Tawny Coster caterpillars nibbling away the outer skin layer of a vine of P. foetida in a wasteland.

The sixth and final instar caterpillar has its head capsule turning almost entirely orange. Its first 2-3 and the last 2-3 body segments bear greater infusion of orange compared to the earlier instars. The ventral white patches invariably turn yellowish green in the last few days of this instar. Growth rate is rather variable among individuals and this final larval stage could last between 9 to 13 days with the body length reaching up to 35mm.

Two views of a 6th instar caterpillar, early in this stage, length: 21mm.

Two views of a 6th instar caterpillar, late in this stage, length: 35mm.

On the last day of 6th instar, the caterpillar ceases feeding and wanders around in search of a suitable pupation site. This mobile pre-pupatory larva has two large white patches on the side of the 2nd and 3rd thoracic segments. Both patches will morph to the wing cases in the pupal stage. Typically the caterpillar finds a spot on the underside of a stem or a tendril where it spins a silk pad to which it secures itself with claspers at its posterior end. From this anchor, the caterpillar hangs vertically head-down and becomes a pre-pupa.

An early pre-pupa of the Tawny Coster, with its posterior end positioned at the silk pad.

Two views of a pre-pupa of the Tawny Coster. Left: early stage; Right: late, moments prior to the pupation event.

Pupation takes place a day later. The slender and whitish pupa hangs vertically with a short cremaster securing it to the silk pad on the substrate. It has two slightly-raised angles in the thorax. There are black dorso-lateral, lateral and ventral bands spotted with orange spots. Black stripes can also be found in the middle, and costal and dorsum margins of the wing case. Length of pupae: 19-21mm.

A Tawny Coster caterpillar molts to its pupal stage.

Three views of a pupa of Tawny Coster; yellowish brown form.

After about 5 days of development, the mature pupa turns dark in the thorax and wing cases, and salmon orange in the abdomen. Eclosion takes place the next day.

Three views of a mature pupa of Tawny Coster.

A Tawny Coster butterfly emerges from its pupal stage.

Newly eclosed Tawny Coster drying its wings on the pupal case. Left: female; Right: male.

  • [C&P4] 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.
  • A Field Guide to the Butterflies of Singapore, Khew S K, Ink on Paper Comm. Pte. Ltd, 2010.
  • Wikipedia: Acraea terpsicore.
Text by Horace Tan, Photos by Lemon Tea Yi Kai, Jonathan Soong, Mark Wong, Bobby Mun, Loke PF, Anthony Wong, Sunny Chir, Khew SK and Horace Tan


RyuseiHime said...

Hi there, my daughter is doing a science project exhibition and we are doing life cycle of a butterfly. It's kinda difficult for us to be able to capture pictures of the entire process from egg to caterpillar so I'm wondering if it's OK for us to use some of the pictures from ur site to supplement what we have?

We got some tawny coster caterpillars from oh farm that is in the 4/5th instar and should be able to get some pictures for the later part of the cycle, just missing the first few stages.

Pictures will be solely used at the exhibition in her school on the 14th. We will definitely give references and credits due.

Hope to have your permission and hear from you soon. Thanks!

Horace said...

No problem at all with your request. :)
All the best to your daughter's science project.


RyuseiHime said...

Thanks Horace. Appreciate lots =)

Unknown said...

Hi I have a similar looking butterfly which I am trying to get help to identify. Can you advise how to do so?
The larvae are very similar, but the butterfly's wings do not have similar spots and the pupae is a lot greyer.
We've found them on what looks to be Passiflora Suberosa.

Horace said...

Hi Eric,
You can send pics of both larva and pupa to me (tan.horace@gmail.com) or Mr Khew (hexaglider@yahoo.com) or post at the ButterflyCircle forum. We can then work to send whether it is of another species.


Unknown said...

Great article. My son got a caterpillar after his school excursion and it was already in the 5th instar stage. Within a few days, it morph into a chrysalis and I was searching articles on white and black chrysalis to figure out what kind of butterfly would emerge. Lucky I found this site!

It's been 3 days since the chrysalis was formed so we're eagerly watching out for the colour change

Unknown said...

I am doing research about tawny coster caterpillars because my science teacher gave me one and I think it is in its 5th instar I was lucky cuz as soon as I brought it back home it was already shedding. BTW I didn’t know that caterpillars shed their face off too when the become a pupa. My Friend forgot to take a leaf from my teacher for her caterpillars and the next day she literally stayed back after school just to get the leaf but when she went home her caterpillar was already a pupa she even sent me a picture

JJanjao said...

Excuse me, I have found these in my garden. Do it sting? I'm not sure would it be ok to raise these guests

Unknown said...

Hello, may I use one of your photos on this page for a STEM outreach programme to highschool students later this month? I'll leave the watermark and give credit to your site. I hope this is okay. Thank you in advance!

miss ha said...

Hello, thank you so much for posting these photos. I was very fortunate enough to witness a Tawny Coster laying its eggs so I took the eggs home (about 14 of them). I have heard that one can raise the caterpillars in a container with holes but I am wondering if I should get a butterfly kit in order to ensure that they have plenty of room to pupate? Also, for them to hang upside down in the cocoon stage, how does one design the inside of the butterfly home in order to allow the caterpillars to hang during the pupating stage?

Thank you in advance! Just want to have some advice as I want to make sure these beautiful creatures can thrive.

Horace said...

A large plastic container will provide sufficient room for the caterpillars.

You can leave some twigs in the container for the caterpillar to pupate on. Some of them would probably just choose the wall of the container to pupate.

LoveNature said...

Hi Horace. Thank you for your articles.

I have a question: What is the bloody drops from a tawny coster butterfly after it emerges from the pupa?

Thank you.

Unknown said...

It has changed to black and dark orange. Is it eclosioning today?

Rachel Wong said...

Thank you for this amazing blog! Came across your blog when I took some caterpillars home from my garden. Now I always back there looking for caterpillars and my daughter and I will always take them home.or else they will be choooed away as the plant that they feed on are not the main plant. I have started an Instagram account to document this journey at @thecrazycaterpillarlady. Hope to connect with you. I put your blog as the link in my bio and hoping to help people understand more about Tawny Coster Caterpillar through you ��

Arun Prasad said...

Hi would like to use the egg picture in my video .can I use it .Thanks in advance