30 October 2016

Grass Blues of Singapore

The Grass Blues of Singapore

Pale Grass Blue (Zizeeria maha serica)

This article features three small butterflies from the subfamily Polyommatinae. Collectively called "Grass Blues", these species are small, feeble but erratic flyers with forewing lengths ranging between 8mm to 16mm. All three are usually observed in urban parks and gardens, and may be considered common, perhaps with the exception of the Pale Grass Blue, which is less often observed than the other two species.

Lesser Grass Blue (Zizina otis lampa)

The Grass Blues that are currently extant in Singapore actually belong to three different genera - Zizina, Zizula and Zizeeria. From historical records, a fourth species was known to exist in Singapore - The Dark Grass Blue (Zizeeria karsandra). However, this species has not been observed in Singapore for over 20 years and is likely to be extinct, although its presence should continue to be looked out for.

Pygmy Grass Blue (Zizula hylax pygmaea)

In recent years, the three "Grass Blues" that have been observed in Singapore are :
  • The Lesser Grass Blue (Zizina otis lampa)
  • The Pygmy Grass Blue (Zizula hylax pygmaea)
  • The Pale Grass Blue (Zizeeria maha serica)

A visual ID key to separate the three Grass Blues in Singapore

Of the three species, the Lesser Grass Blue (Zizina otis lampa) may be considered the commonest. Often found in urban gardens at open fields and grassy areas, the Lesser Grass Blue flies erratically usually no more than a few centimetres above the ground. Occasionally, they can be abundant, fluttering and chasing each other amongst the grasses and wildflowers in open wastelands and roadside verges.

Upperside of a male Lesser Grass Blue

With an average wingspan of no more than 18-20mm, the Lesser Grass Blue is a dull purplish blue with broad diffuse black borders in the male. The female is predominantly brown and unmarked above. The underside is a pale ochreous grey with small dark spots on both wings.

The distinguishing feature of this species that separates it from its lookalike cousins is the spot in space 6 of the hindwing. This spot is moved out of line with the adjacent spots. The submarginal markings on both wings are typically diffuse and indistinct. On the underside of the forewing, the spot in space 11 is absent.

The second species of Grass Blue found in Singapore is the Pygmy Grass Blue (Zizula hylax pygmaea). Also known as the Tiny Grass Blue in other countries, this species is considered the smallest butterfly in Malaysia and Singapore. With a wingspan of only about 14-16mm, this small butterfly is often missed by observers.

Like its related cousins, the Pygmy Grass Blue flies amongst shrubbery in urban gardens and is sometimes abundant. A favourite is the Prickly Lantana (Lantana camara), where this diminutive butterfly is observed ovipositing on the young buds of the flower. Other caterpillar host plants that have been recorded are Mimosa pudica, Ruellia repens and Desmodium triflorum.

A Pygmy Grass Blue ovipositing on the flower bud of Lantana camara

The male is a dull blue above and unmarked. The female is dark brown. The underside is greyish white with the usual black spots on both wings, and a paler series of submarginal markings. The subapical spot on the underside of the forewing is typically "V" shaped, whilst the post-discal spots on the underside of the hindwing are aligned.

The third and final species of Singapore's Grass Blues is the Pale Grass Blue (Zizeeria maha serica). This species is a new record for Singapore when it was first found in 2001. It was never listed in the early authors' checklists and may likely to have been accidentally introduced to Singapore. Photos of specimens sent to the late Col JN Eliot confirmed that this was subspecies serica. Col Eliot opined that this species is similar to the type species that originates from Hong Kong.

Amongst the three Grass Blues found in Singapore, the Pale Grass Blue is the least common. It is found in the same localities as the other two, and often flies in the company of other Polyommatinae in urban parks and gardens. It is also the largest of the three species, with an average wingspan of between 20-22mm. The caterpillar of this species has been successfully bred on the Yellow Sorrel (Oxalis corniculata)

Upperside of a male Pale Grass Blue. Note hindwing marginal black spots

The Pale Grass Blue is light blue above, with broad diffuse dark borders. The female is a dark greyish blue. The submarginal markings are distinct and dark. On the underside of the forewing, the post discal spots are large, round and distinct. The post-discal spots on the underside of the hindwing are aligned. There is also no spot in space 11 on the underside of the forewing.

A newly-eclosed Pale Grass Blue with its pupal case on the left

It is interesting that the Pale Grass Blue (Zizeeria maha serica) has replaced the other species in the genus, the Dark Grass Blue (Zizeeria karsandra) in Singapore. Although the Dark Grass Blue has been recorded in Singapore before, no reliable sightings nor specimens have been found in recent years. This species may have been overlooked by observers and darker individuals of the Grass Blues should be scrutinised closely to establish if it is indeed still extant in Singapore.

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Bob Cheong, Federick Ho, Khew SK, Loke PF, Bobby Mun, Jonathan Soong, Horace Tan, Tan BJ and Anthony Wong

23 October 2016

Revision to the Common Names of Butterflies 5

A Revision to the Common Names of Butterflies
Part 5 : An Analysis of Name Changes

In this fifth part of the series where we discuss the Common Names of Butterflies in the region, we continue our discussion to one species from the Riodinidae family and the species of the Lycaenidae family. In Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4, we framed the background of the naming convention of the English Common Names of butterflies, and also some of the changes in the book by Dr Laurence Kirton.

We also indicated the references of available published work, from which we researched into the Common English names of butterflies. However, in recent years, the usage and acceptance of these common names appear to be largely driven by regular usage by hobbyists and butterfly enthusiasts - particularly on social media and cyberspace. Once a name is coined, and used by the larger community on the internet, there is a high chance that the name becomes adopted quickly, especially if the names are repeated by frequent usage on blogs, photo repositories, social media and websites.

Unlike the taxonomic names, which fall in the domain of researchers and experts who pen scientific papers, common names are often coined by amateurs and hobbyists. Today, even some of the scientific names are being debated as new information becomes available, but often, there is no central body to moderate such changes and some new recommendations can take some time to gain acceptance - even amongst the experts. Butterflies' common names' acceptance is more of a result of frequent and regular usage and availability of books and references on the internet, rather than by any scientific means.

Continuing from where we left off in Part 4 of our discussions on common names, we consider the single species of contention in the Riodinidae family - Abisara savitri savitri. This species has been renamed to Malayan Tailed Judy. As rationalised in our earlier discussions on the common names that have been amended from "Malay" to "Malayan", we see no necessity for this change.

The name Malay Tailed Judy had been used since Evans' time (1927) and continued to be used by various authors of several butterfly books without exception. The sole book that shows the name as "Malayan Tailed Judy" is the one by Dr Kirton, and for all intents and purposes, completely outnumbered by all available literature on butterflies in the region.

Recommendation : Abisara savitri savitri should retain its common name Malay Tailed Judy.

We now move on to the Blues and Hairstreaks in the family Lycaenidae. This family is by far the largest family of butterflies in the Malaysian, Singaporean and Thai region. Many of the species are very similar looking, making it even more challenging to associate logical and justifiable common names for the butterflies.

The first species of that has multiple common names across the region, is Curetis saronis sumatrana. In Evans (1927), the species Curetis saronis is given the name Burmese Sunbeam. Dr Kirton adopted this historical reference name for this species. In Thailand, the subspecies Curetis saronis indosinica is known as Indo-Chine Sunbeam. In Singapore, subspecies sumatrana has been given the name Sumatran Sunbeam.

No other Malaysian reference has given a common name for the species Curetis saronis sumatrana other than Dr Kirton's book. The name Sumatran Sunbeam has appeared in at least four references in Singapore - Butterflies of Singapore 2010, Butterflies of Singapore 2nd Edition 2015, Caterpillars of Singapore's Butterflies 2012 and Singapore Biodiversity : An Encyclopedia of the Natural Environment and Sustainable Development 2011. Whilst there is probably no compelling reason to adopt any of the common names over the others, it is probably from common usage that the name Sumatran Sunbeam has gained a wider acceptance in the local scene.

Recommendation : Curetis saronis sumatrana should retain its common name Sumatran Sunbeam.

The next subfamily under Polyommatinae, or the Blues, comprise a large group of mainly small and delicate butterflies of which many have blue uppersides. The first species that had its name changed in Dr Kirton's book, is Neopithecops zalmora zalmora to Inornate Blue. The original name found in most literature across the region, and all the way back to Evans' "The Identification of Indian Butterflies" (1927), is The Quaker.

It is not clearly understood why Dr Kirton amended the name of this species, but it is probably classified under "Where the original name is socially unacceptable / derogatory". A search on the Internet indeed turned out some information that pointed to Quaker as being derogatory in some societies. However, the tenuous link to anything socially unacceptable or derogatory is probably in some obscure circles that is totally irrelevant today.

Even in commercial products, where I previously used the example in Darkie toothpaste being changed to Darlie toothpaste to avoid the minefield of associations to a derogatory or racist word, there are no such changes. Today, we still eat Quaker Oats. The company has a website, and products on the market still carry the word Quaker. I am not aware of any society or group that violently objects to the word "Quaker" in the modern world. Hence I do not believe that there is any issue with the continued use of the name Quaker for the species Neopithecops zalmora zalmora.

Recommendation : Neopithecops zalmora zalmora should retain its common name The Quaker.

The next species of discussion is Megisba malaya sikkima. In Evans' book, the name The Malayan was coined for this species. Thus far, all the publications that I have come across, have retained that common name for this species. The only book that has altered its name to "Malayan Pied Blue" is Butterflies of Peninsular Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.

Whilst Dr Kirton may have a good reason for changing the name of this species by adding "Pied Blue" to the common name, it is unlikely that the rest of the amateurs and enthusiasts in the butterfly world would agree with him. Hence the name "Malayan", through legacy usage and frequent reference in cyberspace, would continue to be the primary name for this species from India to Southeast Asia and Hong Kong.

Recommendation : Megisba malaya sikkima should retain its common name The Malayan.

Text by Khew SK : Photos by May Chan, Sunny Chir, Khew SK, Simon Sng, Jonathan Soong, Horace Tan and Benjamin Yam.

Earlier articles in this series :
Revision to the Common Names of Butterflies Part 1
Revision to the Common Names of Butterflies Part 2
Revision to the Common Names of Butterflies Part 3
Revision to the Common Names of Butterflies Part 4

15 October 2016

Chiang Dao Reloaded 2016

Chiang Dao Reloaded 2016
Butterflies of North Thailand

I looked forward with uncontained excitement when I arrived for the first time in 2014 at the now famous "car park" at Chiang Dao. Our resident butterfly guide, Antonio Giudici paid the entrance fees to clear the security gantry - a princely 200 baht (about SGD$8) per person for us "farangs" (or foreigners) for a 3-day pass. We drove into what looked like an open area surrounded by single storey wooden sheds set up by the park rangers for their accommodation needs.

An overview of the Chiang Dao car park, which provided so many hours of butterfly photography excitement for our group

It was back in Apr 2014 when a group of ButterflyCircle members first visited that small dirt and mud carpark area of about 1,000 sqm. Officially, the location is called Sop Huai Pha Tang-Nalao Forest Protection Unit (as shown on Antonio's car's GPS). But we just call it Chiang Dao checkpoint carpark for ease of reference.

More views of the Chiang Dao car park where many butterflies puddle on a hot sunny day

The diversity of butterfly species in just this one small plot of land is amazing! It may be safe to say that over the years, the number of species that have been spotted at this 1,000 sqm patch can easily exceed the whole of Singapore island! Due to the bare earth and mud covering the very spartan carpark, all we needed to do, was to add water to the earth and the puddlers would come in droves - particularly during the dry season months.

When the sun shines and the sky is blue, there is always activity to keep you busy at the Chiang Dao car park

It was such a good area for butterfly photography, that our group of butterfly photographers visited it time and again - twice in 2014, twice in 2015 and recently, in Oct 2016. Although for some of us who had visited this place many times, the number of new species spotted was a diminishing return, it was nevertheless still exciting to see the larger and more showy species like the Atrophaneura species (like the Windmills), Charaxes and Polyuras (Rajahs and Nawabs), the rarer Lethe species (the Tree Browns) and many pretty Lycaenidae and Hesperiidae.

Larger and showy species found at Chiang Dao

In the previous years, we stayed at Chiang Mai city and took a daily drive up to Chiang Dao - a distance of just under 100km and took anything between 45 mins and 1.5 hours, depending on the traffic. On recent visits, we decided to stay near Chiang Dao instead and then spare ourselves (or rather our butterfly guide, Antonio) the daily dreary drive to and from Chiang Mai.

Our 'first-world' accomodation at the Nest2, which is just about 5 mins' drive to the Chiang Dao car park

Our favourite "resort" at Chiang Dao is the Nest 2. Rooms are clean and decent (though often you may have to share your space with the little critters that abound in this very natural area). For the city slickers, hot water and airconditioning are available, so there is no need to rough it out. Food is good, though a tad pricey by Thai standards. For more details about Nest 2, check out their website here.

Chiang Dao is about 100 km away from Chiang Mai city.

The Chiang Dao National Park (now renamed as Pha Daeng National Park) is huge. Covering a total area of 1,123 sq km (which is bigger than the whole of Singapore at 715 sq km), the area that we have visited is within the Chiang Dao Wildlife Sanctuary where the highest peak is Doi Chiang Dao (2,175 m high). There are currently a total of 127 gazetted National Parks in Thailand. Over 10% of the land in Thailand is protected as national parks under the 1961 National Parks Act signed by the late Thai King Bhumibol.

More puddlers and species that can be found at Chiang Dao

Coming back to our little car park in Chiang Dao, we can imagine the immense catchment areas that butterflies thrive amidst the many national parks in Thailand - thousands of sq km, of which many are largely inaccessible by modern land transport. The number of species found at this car park varies at different times of the year, and we have visited the location during the early butterfly season in Apr/May and also the start of the cooler dry season in Sep/Oct.

Butterfly species flying around the car park area are mainly the puddlers. They feed on the moisture and minerals from the damp earth in large numbers, and it is often difficult to isolate a single butterfly to photograph when there are hundreds more individuals jostling to feed at their favourite spots.

A squadron of Green Dragontails (Lamproptera meges) puddling at the Chiang Dao car park

This Oct in 2016, a small group of 4 of us spent 4 days at Chiang Dao, spending our time chasing the butterflies in that small car park area, and also taking a short drive up hill to visit some small tracks higher up towards Doi Chiang Dao. Although the weather was not the most cooperative like we experienced in the past occasions that we were there, the butterflies were relatively plentiful during the short periods of sunny weather.

Antonio Giudici, our friendly and knowledgeable butterfly guide in Thailand, posing with a cooperative Great Windmill (Atrophaneura dasarada barata)

Special thanks to our butterfly guide, Antonio, whom I must acknowledge as the most knowledgeable and accommodating guide, particularly for the English-speaking eco-tourist community. As an accomplished butterfly photographer himself, he has amassed more than 800 species of Thai butterflies, taken in the field. His knowledge of butterflies has deepened since I got to know him several years back, and he has begun the journey of setting up an online resource for butterflies of Thailand.

For those of you who intend to visit the Chiang Dao area, and be amazed by the butterfly diversity in northern Thailand, it is recommended that you contact Antonio through his website or FaceBook page. Butterfly watchers will not be disappointed by Antonio's friendly disposition and his wealth of knowledge about butterfly shooting locations, seasonality, specific habitats for certain species and local knowledge about Thailand.

And for those of us who enjoyed Chiang Dao this year, we look forward to visiting Thailand for butterfly watching and photography again some time soon!

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Antonio Giudici, Khew SK and Loke PF.

Condolences : We would like to express our deepest condolences to all Thai citizens on the passing of your beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej. King Bhumibol was an outstanding and deeply revered monarch who worked tirelessly for the betterment of the Thai people. He is also responsible for the conservation of nature parks in Thailand.