27 August 2017

Favourite Nectaring Plants #12

Butterflies' Favourite Nectaring Plants #12
The Elephant's Foot (Elephantopus scaber)

In our 12th article of the Butterflies' Favourite Nectaring Plants series, we feature a rather low profile 'weed' that can be considered quite common where it occurs in Singapore. However, it is not as widespread as many other wild-flowering weeds that butterflies have been known to feed on. This perennial weed, called the Elephant's Foot (Elephantopus scaber) grows wild in open grassy areas, usually under some shade.

A honey bee taking nectar from the flower of the Elephant's Foot

The Elephant's Foot occurs in grasslands, wasteland, roadsides, along fields and in forest borders, an across its range at at elevations even up to 1,500 metres, which makes it a montane species as well! It is a common weed amongst lawns and is usually not welcome in manicured gardens, where it is usually pulled out and thrown away. It has dark green elongated leaves arranged in a rosette at the base.

The Elephant's Foot has many chemicals that are used in traditional medicine for a variety of ailments

Whilst doing research on this humble weed, I found a lot of material regarding the ethnomedicinal uses in various Asian cultures and further research showed that the chemical constituents extracted from various parts of this plant have antibiosis, antivirus, and cytotoxicity qualities. The chemical compounds from the Elephant's Foot used in traditional Chinese herbal medicine is used to treat multiple ailments ranging from headaches, conjunctivitis, eczema, cirrhosis, colds, diarrhea, hepatitis, and bronchitis.

The Elephant's Foot grows its rosette leaves flat and hugs the ground closely

The flowers grow on vertical stems which split into branches, each yielding more flower heads

The Malays believe that since the leaves of the Elephant's Foot lies flat on the ground and resemble the pentacle seal of Solomon, it suppresses the jins and confines them underground. In Indonesian traditional medicine , the plant is believed to be one of the ingredients used to prepare the local concoction of herbs known as "jamu".

Anderson's Grass Yellow feeding on the purplish-pink flower of the Elephant's Foot

The extracts from the leaves of this plant are also used as an aphrodisiac. Interestingly, it is one of several herbal constituents that are mixed to produce drugs that can perk up a male's flagging libido! In this particular advertisement for a natural herbal remedy for men, called Vitroman Powerplus, it is touted to cure erectile dysfunction or impotence! This Thai product uses herbal extracts from Elephant's Foot (Elephantopus scaber), Ginger (Zingiber officianale) and Red Kwao Krua (Butea superba) in combination with other herbs in a secret remedy that is believed to rival Pfizer's Viagra!

Plant Biodata :
Family : Asteraceae (Compositae)
Genus : Elephantopus
Species : scaber
Synonyms : Elephantopus carolinensis, Elephantopus sordidus
Country/Region of Origin : Tropical America, Africa, Asia, Australia
English Common Names : Elephant's Foot, Bull's tongue, Ironweed
Other Local Names : Tutup Bumi, Tapak Sulaiman, Anashovadi, 地胆草, 苦地胆, 鹿耳草(海南)

Hundreds of flowers of the Elephant's Foot blooming at an open grassy site

In Singapore, the Elephant's Foot can be found in open wastelands, grassy patches and fringes of nature reserves. It can also make its way into urban parks and gardens, and into the domestic gardens of landed properties, where it is an unwelcome invader (and treated as such). Where it occurs, it can be very common, often smothering a patch of grass and covering an entire area with its rosette-shaped form and vertical stems which bear its flowers.

A typical rosette form of an Elephant's Foot plant with its long green serrated-edged leaves and green midribs

Elephant's Foot leaves with purple mid-ribs and veins

The leaves range between 5-18 cm long and 2-4 cm wide. They are spatulate (spoon-shaped) or oblanceolate (lance-shaped with the wider end closer to the tip). They are arranged in a rosette-like shape and closely hug the ground. The leaves are a deep forest green in colour and hairy on both the upper and under surfaces. The margins are serrated and uneven. The mid-rib is thick and prominent, and is usually lighter green than the leaves. At times, the veins can be dark purplish in colour.

The flower head of the Elephant's Foot with its boat-shaped bracts

A vertical stem extends out (up to 30-40 cm) where it ends with 3 boat-shaped bracts holding the purple flowers. The stem branches dichotomously (splitting into 2 parts). It is densely covered in stiff, white hairs that are flattened against the stem surface. The compound inflorescence is composed of many capitula (compound flowers composed of 4, purplish or pink florets). The floret is composed of 8-10 mm long petals which form a 4-5 mm long tube.

The fruits are dry, one-seeded achenes about 4mm long and widened at the base. They are elongated, angled and covered in soft hairs. The fruit is attached to a pappus which is composed of 5-6, white bristles. The bristles cling on to animals, birds and humans walking past them and the dispersal of these seeds are believed to be via transmission by this method.

The roots are fibrous and reach down into the soil from the centre of the rosette form, reaching a depth of about 20cm. Propagation is usually by seeds and the plant is robust and can tolerate sandy soil and dry conditions, and is easy to grow.

The pretty purplish-pink flowers of the Elephant's Foot

Due to the diminutive size of the purple flowers, I have only seen the smaller species of butterflies feeding on the flowers. Perhaps it is the depth and physical size of the flowers that may only allow species with shorter and thinner proboscis to reach the nectar within them. I have not seen any of the larger species like the Papilionidae and Nymphalidae feeding on the flowers of the Elephant's Foot.

Examples of the Pieridae known to feed on the flowers of the Elephant's Foot

Amongst the Pieridae, the Eurema species have more often been seen feeding at the flowers. Examples are the Chocolate Grass Yellow, Anderson's Grass Yellow and Common Grass Yellow. I have not come across the larger Pieridae feeding on this plant's flowers. The Psyche (Leptosia nina malayana) another small butterfly, also feeds on the flower of the Elephant's Foot.

Top : Malayan Five Ring and Bottom : Common Four Ring feeding on the flowers of the Elephant's Foot

The Ypthima species often come to the flowers of the Elephant's Foot, and feed greedily on the open flowers. However, trying to photograph butterflies feeding on the flowers of this plant will prove to be a challenge as the flower heads are usually at 20-30cm from the ground, and the butterflies tend to be skittish and fly away at the slightest disturbance of their meal.

Common Caeruleans feeding on the flowers of the Elephant's Foot

Amongst the Lycaenidae, I have seen the Common Caerulaean, Common Hedge Blue and Lesser Grass Blue feeding on the flower of the Elephant's Foot. It is curious as to why there are not more Lycaenidaes that feed on the flowers of this plant. The physical size of the Lycaenidae should theoretically suit this flowering weed, but it is quite rare to see any other species, other than the ones mentioned here, feeding on the flower of the Elephant's Foot.

Examples of small Skippers that feed on the flowers of the Elephant's Foot

For the Hesperiidae, again only the smallest skippers have been seen at the flowers of the Elephant's Foot. Amongst those seen are the Chestnut Bob, Starry Bob, Spotted Grass Dart and Yellow Grass Dart that fly swiftly from flower to flower of the plant, and feeding on the open purple flowers.

The Elephant's Foot flowers appear to only bloom towards noon when the sun is up high in the sky

An interesting point to note about the Elephant's Foot, is that in the early morning hours, the purple flowers are hidden deep inside the flower head. When the sun warms up the environment, usually from 11:30am onwards and towards noon and throughout the afternoon, the purple flowers open up attractively, and this is when the butterflies are most active feeding on the flowers.

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Khew SK, Koh CH and Neo TP

Butterflies Favourite Nectaring Plant #11 : Buas-Buas

19 August 2017

Happy 10th Birthday, BOS Blog!

Happy Birthday, Butterflies of Singapore BLOG!
10 Butterfly-ful Years!

Time certainly flies! I remember going on an outing to the Kekek Quarry at Pulau Ubin with fellow nature enthusiasts Ria Tan and November Tan. Both of them were already active nature bloggers back then, and I recall asking fellow nature enthusiast Ria Tan (of the Wild Singapore fame) how she found the energy and discipline to write about all things nature in Singapore for so many years. Back then, her WildSingapore! website and blog were in their early years but already had a good following of readers.

Another source of inspiration was Dr Wee Yeow Chin's Bird Ecology Study Group (BESG). Back in 2007, Dr Wee was already an avid nature blogger (and still is today!), writing not just about birds and featuring pretty pictures or records of sightings of birds, BUT he shared observations and behaviour of birds - which went beyond just bird watching for the sake of watching birds. There were more in-depth discussions about birds in specific habitats, what they did, their behaviour and instincts and much more information.

I also remember vividly, Dr Wee's words of wisdom that he shared with me, and also penned in the comments section of my first blog test-post on 16 Aug 2007 - "Congratulations to the Butterflies of Singapore blog. An excellent effort to share information on these fascinating creatures. After all "knowledge not shared is knowledge lost." Indeed, Dr Wee! Very wise advice!

And that was how it started. I set up an account in Blogspot, one of many blogging platforms that I reviewed. Then I studied many other nature blogs to learn how others wrote. I thought of how I wanted the blog to look, and the approach that I wanted to take to share information to anyone in cyberspace who was interested to read about butterflies. A concern that many veteran bloggers often advised would be - how long do you want to write on blogosphere? In other words, is what you started sustainable?

Very apt advice about sustainability. There are probably millions of blogs out there. A large percentage of bloggers are occasional posters and many have fallen by the wayside as the attraction of blogging or just writing some thoughts on blogosphere was nothing but a passing fad. After a bit more consideration and researching, I started posting articles regularly only in Nov 2007, and setting myself a modest goal of at least one article per week.

Looking back, the Butterflies of Singapore blog has become a weekly routine into the blogging world for me. It was a good platform to share what little extra that I knew about butterflies, nature conservation and Singapore's environmental efforts. It was also a good stress relief for me, to practise my writing skills and improving my vocabulary at the same time. The discipline of ensuring that I had at least one article per week appeared daunting at times. But after a few years of practice, it became quite easy to compose, write and pepper the articles with photos from ButterflyCircle members that literally added colour to the blogpost. But I also had help...

At the last count on the data on the blog, there are 836 posts (including this post) since Aug 2007. (Nothing much to shout about, and a very modest count when compared to Dr Wee's BESG site). Whilst the majority of the articles have been written by me, my sincerest appreciation goes to the many contributors, regular and once-off, for their assistance and effort to write articles for this blog. Special thanks in particular to Horace Tan for his numerous excellent life history articles, which are obviously very popular amongst butterfly enthusiasts. Thanks also to the following writer-contributors to this blog (in alphabetical order) :
  • Sunny Chir
  • Goh Lai Chong
  • Federick Ho
  • Dr Lee Ping Chung
  • Loh Mei Yee
  • Bobby Mun
  • Tan Ben Jin
  • Ellen Tan
  • Dr Horace Tan
  • Dr Wee Yeow Chin
  • Dr Melissa Whitaker
  • Anthony Wong
  • Mark Wong
My deepest appreciation too, to the many photographers (too many to name here), without whose excellent photos, this blog would not be as colourful and interesting.

Blogspot has also tracked some statistics about this blog, and these are some of the information that are interesting to note. Unfortunately, the auto-tracking only started in May 2010 to the current day, so there are about 3 years of data missing. Nevertheless, the information is useful for would-be bloggers who are thinking of starting something of their own.

Overall, in the past 7 years or so, the number of pageviews has crossed the two million mark. Of these views, the top country is (not surprising) Singapore, followed by the USA and so on. Taking into account spambots and all manner of strange technological monitoring apps, the audience demographics by country is quite interesting, especially where there appears to be a lot of Russian audience to this blog.

Amongst the top 10 most popularly-viewed articles, the Life History of the Baron appears to be the most visited post by far! Again, it may be spambots or some technical glitch on someone's computer that has constantly hit this article. Or perhaps there is someone out there who has a deep interest in the Baron's life history! Amongst the other articles are the Butterfly Proboscis, and several other Life History articles. A couple of the 10 most viewed articles probably also benefitted from being cross-posted on other websites like the NParks site or shared on social media and other digital portals.

This blog has survived for 10 years. So what next? What else can improve the blog? We've featured many butterflies, their ecology and habitats, nature conservation, plants, travelogues, life histories, butterfly photography, research, community engagement and many more feature articles that went beyond just butterflies. Is it time to retire and close down the blog? Or are there still many other stories about butterflies that have yet to be told?

Until then, it's still a memorable milestone to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the Butterflies of Singapore Blog.

Text and photos by Khew SK

12 August 2017

ButterflyCircle Sharing Series

ButterflyCircle Sharing Series
An Introduction to Butterfly Photography

Recently, ButterflyCircle veteran Bob Cheong and I organised a talk and sharing session for some of our FaceBook newbies who have been contributing actively to the group. The talk was kept to a small group so that it would be more effective for those who were already interested in butterfly photography and who were enthusiastic and posting their butterfly photos regularly on the FB Group.

Setting up the equipment for the talk (with Shimin and Cally)

The talk would be focused on some fundamental principles and tips for the members to improve their butterfly photography in terms of exposure, composition, understanding butterfly behaviour and so on. This sharing session was intended to help them even the odds when out in the field stalking and photographing butterflies and also to raise the quality of their butterfly photos.

Butterfly photography talk in progress and the attentive audience

A small group of enthusiasts and supporters of the Butterflies of Singapore FB Group were specially invited for the talk, which was held at the Function Room of the Botany Centre, Singapore Botanic Gardens. The cosy room was ideal for the sharing session, and the small number of attendees who already shared a passion for butterflies and butterfly photography meant that as many questions could be answered as possible in two-hour morning talk.

The talk started with a general introduction of butterflies in Singapore, their biology, behaviour and where to find them in various habitats - both in the urban and forested areas. Some information on butterfly defensive strategies like mimicry, decoy and camouflage of the various species found in Singapore were also discussed.

Various macro lenses and their working distance

Basic information on photographic equipment was also shared, as well as various camera settings, preferred lenses for butterfly photography. Fundamental information on the understanding of depth of field, magnification ratio of lenses and working distance were presented in as simple a format as possible so as to make these basic photographic concepts understandable.

Example of how aperture affects the depth of field and the background of a shot

For example the reason behind the use of aperture priority mode for most butterfly photography situations were explained, and how the use of the aperture controls the depth of field for a clean smooth background. Bob explained the use of shutter priority or manual mode in situations where 'flappers' or fast moving butterflies require an appropriate shutter speed to 'freeze' the rapid flapping of the wings.

Some very basic "rules" of butterfly photography

Relevant examples were used to illustrate some very basic rules like making sure that the butterfly's eye(s) are in sharp focus when photographing them. Composition techniques that would help to improve the overall presentation of a shot were also explained - in particular using the "rule of thirds" and "leading space" when composing or post-processing as shot to feature a butterfly in its best pose.

The importance of keeping the horizon level when shooting and posting puddling butterflies was discussed. Where the situations allow or opportunities present themselves, a butterfly photographer should also look for angles which could present the subject better with an uncluttered background, so that the butterfly becomes the main focus of the shot.

Getting a butterfly shot with an uncluttered background helps to isolate and focus on the subject

The session ended with some examples of fill-flash and why using flash can enhance a butterfly shot - even in bright sunlight. Examples of such situations where a flash can be used to bring the subject out of shadow or even out the harsh shadows were presented to explain the benefits of using fill-flash.

Questions and discussion after the talk

The attendees asked some questions on equipment and Bob and I were on hand to share our experience on the Canon and Nikon DSLR systems and various macro lenses. It was an interesting session and also to meet some of our FB Group's regular contributors and put faces to the names that we have only 'met' on social media, and also for the members themselves to meet each other.

If there is interest for such talks in future, perhaps a more advanced talk on butterfly identification and other aspects of photography can be arranged. Special talks on butterfly gardening and breeding can also be held for those who are interested in such subjects. Mr Foo JL and his butterfly community gardening groups can be invited to share their experience and knowledge in these areas in future talks.

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Huang CJ

Special thanks to NParks and SBG for the use of the Function Room at Botany Centre and to their support staff, Kin Shimin and Cally Goh for being on hand on a Saturday morning to assist in the setting up of the room and technical support.