24 September 2016

Eye In the Sky

Eye In the Sky
Butterfly Gardens : A View from the Top

An aerial view of the Butterfly Garden at Fusionopolis North

Singapore's urban butterfly gardens have been featured on this blog regularly. Our winged jewels thrive in these specially-planted gardens that attract them to visit the flowering plants to feed and their host plants to lay their eggs. With judicious planting of appropriate butterfly nectaring and host plants, these butterfly gardens can attract many species of butterflies.

I have always wondered what these urban gardens would look like from the viewpoint of a butterfly, soaring high in the sky and scanning the landscape below for their favourite flowers. Imagine a Common Birdwing (Troides helena cerberus), flying majestically 20-30 metres or even higher, above the lush greenery, and looking down and searching for its host plants or some of its favourite nectaring plants when it is hungry.

Human eye view of the Butterfly Garden at Fusionopolis North

Thus far, we have been featuring photographs of our butterfly gardens from a human's perspective - walking on the ground and looking around at the butterflies fluttering from flower to flower. Our photos of the butterflies feeding, sunbathing or frolicking around is limited to what we can encounter at our eye-level. Our views of the greenery that surrounds us, is what we can see, with our feet planted firmly on the ground.

Recently, a colleague loaned me his quad-copter drone and I thought that it would be a good opportunity for me to visit some of the butterfly gardens that I had featured before, and how they would look like from the air. These days, there are so many types of flying drones available online and in technology shops locally and abroad. As can be expected, quite a large percentage of these drones are made in China - even the "high end" DJI Phantoms that are very popular amongst drone enthusiasts.

The Blade Chroma quadcopter drone with CGO3 4K camera

So I got my hands on a Yuneec Blade Chroma that comes with a CGO3 4K camera that can shoot 30fps videos or 12 Mp stills. The integrated 3-axis gimbal holds the camera still and video footages appear very stable. After logging a few hours' flight time as a novice drone pilot, I set out to some of our local butterfly gardens to take a look at how they look like "from up there".

Butterfly Sanctuary @ the Meadows, Gardens by the Bay

Butterfly Sanctuary @ the Meadows, Gardens by the Bay

The first butterfly garden was the Butterfly Sanctuary at the Meadows, Gardens by the Bay. Taking the drone up to a cruising height of about 50m, the landscaping at the Butterfly Sanctuary appeared rather thin and arranged along a linear path. The nectaring plants flanked the path, visible from the air, where most of the butterfly activity can be expected. The surrounding greenery and taller trees provided shade and expanded the area where the butterflies flew around.

Hort Park Butterfly Garden

The next butterfly garden that I visited was the one at Hort Park. Originally in an enclosure, the butterfly garden is now an open garden with free-flying butterflies like most of our environmentally-friendly butterfly gardens. The layout of the butterfly garden, complete with host and nectaring plants, is designed on the standard plot sizes at Hort Park, and strung in a linear fashion. Over the years, the tall trees along the trail have grown to a significant height, and provides shade for parts of the butterfly garden.

Butterfly Garden @ Hort Park

From the top, the clusters of host and nectaring plants like the Snakeweeds, Lantanas, Stringbush, Golden Dewdrops and Dutchman's Pipevine appear like a mass of green and the colours of the flowers were indistinguishable from 30-40m up.

Fusionopolis Butterfly Garden

Moving to the next urban garden nearby, I visited the Fusionopolis North Butterfly Garden. This recently-completed butterfly garden was still rather open and unshaded as the larger trees have yet to mature and extend their green canopies. From the air, the network of concrete footpaths was quite distinct as were some of the hardscape features.

Butterfly Garden at Fusionopolis North

Up at 35m above, this butterfly garden appears more squarish in plan, with all the butterfly-attracting plants visible in a patchwork of greenery with the sinuous footpaths winding through the garden. The large trees flanking the butterfly garden provided a boundary and much-needed shade from the hot environment where the newly-landscaped gardens were planted.

Jurong Eco-Gardens Butterfly Garden

Butterfly Garden at Jurong Eco Garden

The last butterfly garden that I visited with the Blade Chroma, was the one at Jurong Eco-Gardens. Located in a more sub-urban environment with slightly more undeveloped greenery (for the moment), the butterfly garden is also laid out along a linear trail, with the butterfly-attracting plants flanking the trail.

A closer butterfly-eye's view of the Butterfly Garden at Jurong Eco Garden

From the air at about 40m up, the large red clumps of the Pagoda Flower (Cleredendron paniculatum) were visible. The wide boardwalk can be clearly seen, and the surrounding waterbody and larger adjacent trees formed a lush boundary to the butterfly garden.

Take a flight around the butterfly garden at Fusionopolis North! (You may have to run the video a couple of times to get a better resolution)

And so you now know how these butterfly gardens look like from a high-flying butterfly's viewpoint. At this point in time, it is unlikely that a drone can successfully take close-up butterfly shots at the treetop canopies. But at the rate technology is advancing these days, someone may just invent a zoom lens that can do just that in the future!

Three Common Tree Nymphs (Idea stolli logani) soaring high in the air

Text and Photos by Khew SK & Loke PF

Special thanks to my colleague and good friend, Vincent, who loaned me his Blade Chroma quadcopter (and is in the process of 'poisoning' me to get the awesome DJI Phantom 4 drone)

For those who are curious, there are currently no permits required to purchase a drone in Singapore. However, there are regulations and limits on flying a drone and you should familiarise yourself with the prevailing regulations under the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS).

18 September 2016

Life History of the Felder's Royal v2.0

Life History of the Felder's Royal (Tajuria mantra mantra)

Butterfly Biodata:
Genus: Tajuria Moore, 1881
Species: mantra C. & R. Felder, 1860
Subspecies: mantra C. & R. Felder, 1860
Wingspan of Adult Butterfly: 31-35mm
Caterpillar Local Host Plant: Macrosolen cochinchinensis (Loranthaceae common names: Common Chinese Mistletoe, 鞘花). .

Physical Description of Adult Butterfly:
On the upperside, the male is shining greenish-blue and the female is paler purplish blue. Both sexes have a broad apical black border in the forewing, and a black costal border in the hindwing with inner edges evenly curved to below vein 6 in male and to vein 4 in female. The female has additional marginal spots at tornus and in spaces 1b, 2 to 4. On the underside, both sexes are drab greyish-brown. The forewing post-discal line is much closer to termen than to the cell-end. The hindwing has large black tornal spots in spaces 1a and 2 which are broadly orange-crowned. There are two pairs of white-tipped tails at ends of veins 1b and 2 respectively.

Field Observations:
This species was recently re-discovered in Singapore in 1999. It is relatively rare locally. Sightings of this species have been more frequent in the Southern Ridges than in the Central Catchment Reserve Area. Around noon, the fast-flying adults have been sighted taking nectar at flowering plants in both hill parks and in gardens sited along the fringe of nature reserves. At times several adults could be seen dog-fighting at tree-top level in the mid afternoon.

Early Stages:
Only one local host plant has been recorded for the Felder's Royal. The plant, Macrosolen cochinchinensis is a parasitic plant growing on branches of other plants. Caterpillars of the Felder's Royal feed on the young and developing leaves of this host, with the 1st instar initially skimming the leaf surface and the later instars eating the leaf along the edges.

Local host plant: Macrosolen cochinchinensis.

Eggs are laid singly on the underside of leaves, young shoots, on or in the vicinity of flower buds of the host plant. Each egg is about 0.8mm in diameter, white with a strong greenish tinge when freshly laid. It is burger-shaped with a depressed micropylar at the pole and a surface reticulated with rather large polygonal depressions.

Two views of an egg of the Felder's Royal, laid among leaf buds of the host.

An egg of the Felder's Royal laid on the leaf bud of host.

It takes 3-4 days for the egg to hatch. The young caterpillar consumes just enough of the egg shell to emerge. With a length of about 1.2mm, it is with pale brownish lateral bands. Long setae (hairs) run along the length of the body dorsally as well as sub-spiracularly. The caterpillar assumes the typical woodlouse body shape as it grows in this instar which lasts about 3 days and sees the body length increased to about 3.3mm. On the last day of this instar, raised dorsal tubercles become prominent and reddish brown patches appear laterally.

Two views of a 1st caterpillar, newly hatched, length: 1.2mm.

Two views of a 1st instar caterpillar, length: 2.75mm.

Two views of a late 1st instar caterpillar, length:3.3mm.

The 2nd instar caterpillar has a diamond-shaped prothoracic shield dark in color. Dorsally, it bears prominently projections, one to each of abdominal segments 1 to 6, and two to each of thoracic segments 2 and 3. Reddish brown and pale patches decorate sides of the body. The posterior segments from the 7th abdominal segments onwards are fused together to take on a shield-like appearance with a dark patch sitting on top of it. The 2nd instar lasts for 3 days and reaches a length of about 5.5-6mm. Even in this early stage, the dorsal nectary organ and tentacular organ are very prominently featured on the shield-like posterior. The dorsal projections on segments 2, 3 and 6 turn greenish towards the end of this instar.

Two views of a 2nd instar caterpillar, newly moulted, eating its exuvia, length: 3.8mm.

Two views of a 2nd instar caterpillar, length: 4.2mm.

Two views of a 2nd instar caterpillar, late in this stage, length: 5.3mm.

The 3rd instar caterpillar looks similar to the late 2nd instar caterpillar but with greater contrast between pale beige coloration with dark brown to black coloration on the body. As the body grows in size to a length of about 10-11.5mm, the color of shading on both the anterior and posterior parts also darkens. After 3 days in this stage, it moults again.

Two views of a 3rd instar caterpillar, length: 8.9mm.

Two views of a 3rd instar caterpillar, length: 11.5mm.

The 4th (and final) instar caterpillar initially resembles the late 3rd instar caterpillar. Over the next 2 days, the color of the body gradually darkens. Mid body segments (excluding the dorsal ridge) become dark brown in color. Both the anterior and posterior segments are dominated by brown shadings. The carapace-shield also features a wrinkled surface. In addition, the dorsal projections on abdominal segments 2, 3 and 6 lose their green coloration and take on the same pale yellowish brown of the other dorsal projections.

Two views of an early 4th instar caterpillar, newly moulted and eating exuvia, length: 10.5mm.

Two views of a 4th instar caterpillar, length: 17mm.

The 4th instar lasts for 4 days and the body reaches a length of about 19-21mm. In the last day of this stage, more dramatic color changes take place. The shield-like posterior segments take on a bright orangy brown coloration where the mid body segments assume a contrasting dark green coloration. The anterior body segments turn lighter brown in coloration. Nearing the end of this instar, the caterpillar ceases feeding, and its body shrinks in length. Soon it comes to rest at a spot on the leaf surface and prepares for its pupation.

A 4th instar caterpillar of the Felder's Royal feeding on an Ixora flower.

The pre-pupatory caterpillar prepares for pupation by spinning a silk pad to which it attaches itself via anal claspers. Even during this pre-pupal stage, color changes continue to take place (see the next two pictures).

Two views of an early pre-pupa of the Felder's Royal.

Two views of a late pre-pupa of the Felder's Royal.

Pupation takes place after about 1 day of the pre-pupa phase. The pupa is held firmly via its cremaster to the silk pad on the leaf surface. It is 12-13mm in length, mostly green with yellowish green patches. There are two sets of brown to reddish brown dorsal markings. The pupa was observed to react to an external disturbance by jerking up and down.

Two views of a pupa of the Felder's Royal.

Seven days later, the pupa becomes darkened, mostly in the thorax and wing pads. The bluish patch on the forewing upperside can now be seen in the wing pads. The next day the adult butterfly emerges from the mature pupa.

Two views of a mature pupa of a Felder's Royal.

A newly eclosed Felder's Royal.

  • [C&P4] The Butterflies of The Malay Peninsula, A.S. Corbet and H.M. Pendlebury, 4th Edition, Malayan Nature Society, 1992.
  • Butterflies of Thailand, Pisuth Ek-Amnuay, 2nd Edition, 2012.
  • A Field Guide to the Butterflies of Singapore, Khew S.K., Ink On Paper Communications, 2nd Edition, 2015.
Text by Horace Tan, Photos by Jonathan Soong, Nelson Ong, Anthony Wong and Horace Tan

10 September 2016

Butterfly of the Month - September 2016

Butterfly of the Month - September 2016
The Cycad Blue (Chilades pandava pandava)

The intermonsoon months bringing in rains riding on the south-westerly winds have given us several rather wet days this month. Often referred to as the "Sumatras", the sudden and heavy squalls can sometimes dump a lot of rain in a very short time, causing slight "ponding" in some parts of Singapore, when the thunderstorms coincide with high tides. But generally, the weather is still great (hot and humid conditions) for butterflies this time of the year.

The 2016 Summer Olympics are over, and the excitement over Singaporean Joseph Schooling's gold medal-winning, and Olympic record-breaking achievement is certainly palpable all across Singapore. It was the first time Singapore won an Olympic gold in the history of the games, and the first time ever, that Majulah Singapura was played at an Olympics medals presentation venue.

Another Singaporean swimmer, Yip Pin Xiu, who won another gold medal for Singapore in the Rio Paralympics Games, received less publicity. Her achievement was no less amazing, particularly when she broke the World Record as well, in her win in the 100m backstroke event. Congrats, Pin Xiu and Joseph, for putting our little red dot on the Olympics map and creating our little bit of history for Singapore!

Back to some domestic issues of concern - the Zika virus, which can cause microcephaly in a small number of unborn foetus of pregnant women, created a stir when it was discovered in Singapore this month. The virus, which apparently was in existence since the 1950's, is transmitted by the Aedes mosquito, just like dengue fever and Chikungunya. The locally transmitted number of cases has exceeded 300 in early September, and is likely to rise. The most effective control of the spread of the virus is eradicating the source of the vector - eliminating the Aedes mosquito's breeding grounds.

Although the symptoms of Zika is mild and in some cases, even asymptomatic, the emergence of a new "disease" always causes concern in the population, particularly amongst pregnant women. A lot still has to be learned about this virus and how it really affects humans. Like dengue fever, it is likely to stay as a seasonal disease that we will have to deal with from here on.

A Cycad Blue feeding on the flower of the Spanish Needle (Bidens alba)

Whilst the campaign by the authorities to educate the public to strive to eliminate mosquito breeding grounds is underway, the public alarm over Zika has seen widespread thermal fogging in Singapore. Though such measures are understandable, over-fogging may cause more harm than good to our biodiversity. It is hoped that the authorities are also aware of the damage to other critters from fogging and not go overboard with it. Can it be likened to carpet-bombing the entire city, just because a bunch of ISIS terrorists have been found here?

A Cycad Blue feeding on the flower of the Toothache Plant (Acmella oleracea)

This month, we feature a small and common "Blue" (from the family Lycaenidae), the Cycad Blue (Chilades pandava pandava). This species is quite widely distributed in Singapore, and is more often seen in urban parks and gardens, particularly in the vicinity of where its caterpillar host plants, Cycas spp., grow.

This species is often referred to as the Plains Cupid in most literature across Asia. However, the local common name Cycad Blue was first used in Dr Yong Hoi-Sen's 1983 book, Malaysian Butterflies - An Introduction, and has been used in several other local references and articles in Malaysia and Singapore. In Australia, the name Cycad Blue is associated with another species of Lycaenidae, Theclinesthes onycha, which is also considered a pest on Cycads.

A Cycad Blue feeding on the flower of the Honolulu Creeper (Antigonon leptopus)

This small butterfly is a bane of landscape gardeners, particularly when they cultivate the Sago Palm (Cycas revoluta) and the Malayan Fern Plant (Cycas rumphii) as their prized ornamental plants. In the Singapore Botanic Gardens' Evolution Garden, where several other species of rare Cycas are also found, the butterfly has to be "managed" to prevent the destruction of some of these plants. The caterpillars of the Cycad Blue tend to feed on young fronds of the plant, thereby preventing new growth of the plant and stunting it.

Top : Female Cycad Blue showing her broad black borders
Bottom : Male Cycad Blue with its thin black borders and purplish blue upperside

The male Cycad Blue is light purplish blue with narrow black marginal borders and a prominent black tornal spot on the hindwing. The female has broad black borders and is a paler blue with distinct marginal spots on the hindwing.

The underside is pale grey with streaks and black spots and a prominent orange-crowned black tornal spot on the hindwing. There is a white-tipped filamentous tail at vein 2 of the hindwing. The butterfly has jet-black eyes and the antennae has a banded black-and-white appearance. The cilia on both the fore and hindwings are white.

A male Cycad Blue feeding on the flower of the Yellow Creeping Daisy  (Wedelia trilobata)

The Cycad Blue has a forewing length of about 12-14mm and is considered a small butterfly. The spots on the undersides can be quite variable, and rarely, aberrations may be observed as to suggest that the individual is even of a different species! It flies quite erratically, but often stops to feed at flowers with its tails twirling actively in the breeze making them appear as though they are alive.

Two examples of puddling Cycad Blues

In some instances, the Cycad Blue is also observed to puddle at damp spots on the forest floor and also feed on bird droppings. At certain times of the day, both sexes may also be encountered sunbathing with their wings opened to show their blue uppersides.

A mating pair of Cycad Blues perched on their host plant, Cycas revoluta (Sago Palm)

The caterpillars feed on various Cycas spp. and locally, they have been successfully bred on the Sago Palm (Cycas revoluta) and Malayan Fern Tree (Cycas rumphii), and the full documentation of their early stages can be found here.

Text by Khew SK : Photos by May Chan, Chng CK, Federick Ho, Huang CJ, Khew SK, Koh CH, Loke PF, Nelson Ong, Jonathan Soong, Tea Yi Kai, Anthony Wong and Benjamin Yam