26 November 2017

Butterflies of Borneo

Butterflies of Borneo
Time for new Field Guides?

Glorious Begum (Agatasa calydonia mahasthama) but called "Eight Coloured Jack" by Otsuka in his book

A visitor from Europe recently left me an email to inquire about local references and literature about South East Asian butterflies, and in particular, Borneo where he planned to spend a week. Whilst I was able to point him to several decent works about butterflies in the region, I was quite hard-pressed to refer him to good field guides about Bornean butterflies. Continued searches on the internet, good nature book stores and amongst like-minded butterfly enthusiasts did not turn up anything other than what was already currently available.

A map of Borneo island.

The island of Borneo is the 3rd largest island in the world. It is politically divided among three countries: Malaysia and Brunei in the north, and Indonesia to the south. The island covers 751,936 sqkm (that's more than a thousand times the size of little Singapore!). About 73% of the island is Indonesian territory known as Kalimantan. In the north, the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak make up about 26% of the island. Additionally, the Malaysian federal territory of Labuan is situated on a small island just off the coast of Borneo. The sovereign state of Brunei Darussalam, located on the north coast, comprises about 1% of Borneo's land area.

Banded Faun (Faunis stomphax stomphax) - Bako National Park, Sarawak

Borneo has extensive primary rainforest cover that is believed to be over 140 million years old, making it one of the oldest tropical rainforests in the world. In recent years, infrastructural development, logging and oil palm plantations have continued to decimate the natural rainforests. In the past decade, severe massive forest fires further reduced pristine rainforests to ashes. The island is home to a large number of endemic species, and the number of species new to science cannot be underestimated as researchers rush to document Borneo's rich biodiversity.

Kinabalu Swordtail (Pathysa stratiotes) a Bornean endemic. Mahua Waterfall, Sabah, Malaysia

There are nearly a thousand species of butterflies that have been discovered in Borneo. Of these, close to 10% are endemic to the island - meaning that these species are found only on Borneo and nowhere else in the world. Over the years, species new to science continue to be discovered as previously inaccessible parts of the rainforest are opened up. Mount Kinabalu in the state of Sabah, is the highest peak on Borneo, rising to 4,101m. There are many endemic montane species of flora and fauna found in Borneo.

One of the best taxonomic references on the Butterflies of Borneo is the out-of-print Butterflies of Borneo, Vol 2 No 1 Lycaenidae (published in 1991). However, this book only deals with the Lycaenidae species in Borneo, whilst the elusive Vol 2 No 2 covers Hesperiidae.

Currently the most comprehensive field guide on the butterflies of Borneo

Another book by the same author Kazuhisa Otsuka, is a 224-page hardcover Field Guide. A selection of about 200 species of butterflies found in Borneo is featured in the book. The book is rather short on the introduction of butterflies in Borneo and taxonomic details about butterflies. Searching for species in the usual organised taxonomic families is difficult, as the author organised the book by habitats. Even the index to the species pages are ordered by habitats and there is no easy way of searching for each species alphabetically, either by scientific or common names.

The author organises the book by the following habitats and sub-habitats :
Lowland Butterflies (by sea shores and islands)
Lowland Butterflies (around villages and farms)
Lowland Butterflies (in forests)
Low Mountain Butterflies (by streams)
Low Mountain Butterflies (edges of forests)
Low Mountain Butterflies (in forest)
High Mountain Butterflies (by streams)
High Mountain Butterflies (by ridges)
High Mountain Butterflies (in forest)

Although meant to facilitate easy reference to the species found in their natural habitats, it is extremely difficult to navigate the book to look for a particular species, as many species have overlapping habitats. This makes the book less useful as a field guide to the less experienced butterfly watcher. The author has also chosen to coin new English common names for quite a number of the species featured in the book, which are totally unfamiliar across the available literature on South East Asian butterflies. This makes the search for different species by their common names even more challenging!

A pocket guide featuring 100 species of Borneo - by Prof Dr Fatimah Abang

A second book, referred to as a "pocket guide", is a 130-page paperback by Fatimah Abang, a Professor in Entomology from Department of Zoology of the University Malaysia Sarawak. This book is intended to serve as a very basic guide to assist butterfly enthusiasts in the identification of some of the butterflies found in Malaysia. This book, entitled "Butterflies of Malaysian Borneo - a Pocket Guide", showcases a total of 100 species of butterflies.

The first 20 pages of the book starts with a useful introduction to butterflies and explanation of some of the various aspects of their habitats and host plants, morphology, life cycle and classification. The rest of the book is organised by the families of butterflies, albeit the photos of the species are from museum specimens and very few field shots are found in the book.

A useful index can be found at the end of the book, which aids in the search for species pages found in the book - by alphabetical order of their scientific and common names. Some of the English common names used in the book may have been influenced by the author of the previous book and appear to deviate from the typical names used by authors in the region.

Clipper (Parthenos sylvia borneensis) - Poring Hot Spring, Sabah, Malaysia

Whilst both these field guides on Bornean butterflies may have their shortcomings, they are nevertheless the only currently available books dealing with species found in Borneo. This leaves a big gap in the educational literature about the butterflies of Borneo for other authors to fill.

A soon-to-be published Guide to the Butterflies of Borneo - © Beaufoy Publishing

At the moment, Beaufoy Publishing has indicated that a 'coming soon' 150-species Butterflies of Borneo book is in the works. Authored by Honor Phillipps, the book is described to contain the full checklist of the butterflies of Borneo as at 2012 and their status in each state of Borneo. However, a quick check on the internet websites show that this book is still yet to be available.

Common Tree Nymph (Idea lynceus) - Poring Hot Springs, Sabah, Malaysia

Friends in the photography groups have also indicated that another book is also in the works. This book, will be published by renowned publisher of all things Borneo, Datuk Chan Chew Lun who owns the Natural History Publications (Borneo) Sdn. Bhd. a Kota Kinabalu-based publishing house. It is one of the leading English language and natural history publishers in Malaysia and Southeast Asian region. The company has published numerous works relating to the biological richness of the region, with a focus on the island of Borneo.

Butterfly enthusiasts will certainly look forward to these new publications on the Butterflies of Borneo.

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Goh LC, Rod Eldie and Khew SK

Photos from the books "A Field Guide to the Butterflies of Borneo and South East Asia" and "Butterflies of Malaysian Borneo - A Pocket Guide" are copyrighted property of their respective authors and publishers, and samples of the pages from the books are featured here under the principles of fair use.

Further references :

Taxonomic List of the Butterflies of the Labi-Teraja Area - by Vic Hitchings

19 November 2017

Butterfly of the Month - November 2017

Butterfly of the Month - November 2017
The Common Three Ring (Ypthima pandocus corticaria)

A Common Three Ring perched on a grass blade in the nature reserves

2017 is chugging steadily into its remaining two months as the end-of-year monsoons hit the region. These days, the volume of rainfall coming down in a short time appears to challenge conventional design in drainage and hydraulic engineering. Coupled with high tides, the statistical probability of flooding in our urban environment is often much higher than predicted.

Recently, up north on the island of Penang in Malaysia, an unprecedented flood hit the city of Georgetown after being inundated with heavy rains for several hours. Photos and videos of the floods circulated widely on social media, as the state authorities struggled with evacuation plans and moving residents of low-lying areas to safety. The early Nov flood had a rainfall of 315mm and the highest on record for Penang. Sadly, seven people, mostly senior citizens, fell victim to the floods and the majority of these drowned in the rising waters.

Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia, under flood waters - a victim of climate change? © Reuters

With the rapid urban development of Penang island, its existing drainage system, both natural and engineered, was unable to cope with the unexpected deluge of rainfall. As residents struggled to get back to their normal life, aerial photos of the Pearl of the Orient showed many areas covered with brown muddy waters and rubbish carried by the floods. Many basement carparks in buildings were completely submerged, extensively damaging any vehicle unfortunate enough to be parked there. The consequences of climate change are here, despite some global leaders' refusal to believe that there are no problems with our environment.

Back in Singapore, the weather has also been unforgiving. Daily rains, whether welcomed or otherwise, was a fact of life over the past month. On one such rainy day, the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) tunnels flooded for the first time in its history, causing the train network on the N-S line to be shut down for about 20 hours. Social media erupted with criticism at the company responsible for running and maintaining the MRT system. The problem was traced to a failed pump system which was not automatically activated as designed to do.

A mating pair of Common Three Ring

The MRT woes continued with more interruptions by recurring signalling faults and other unforeseen causes that created inconveniences and caused much public ire. Just last week, another of such software faults caused injury to over 30 passengers when a train collided into a stationary train ahead of it. Even though the train was travelling at 16 km/h as reported, several passengers' injuries were severe enough to require hospitalisation.

Back to our butterfly world, the rainy season has seen the usual drop in numbers of butterflies. The inclement weather has also reduced the number of outings amongst butterfly watchers, and it's often a gamble (which we sometimes lose!) against the rain gods if we choose to head out to the forests for any butterfly watching activity.

This month, we feature a rather drab and under-appreciated butterfly, the Common Three Ring (Ypthima pandocus corticaria). This species, from the sub-family Satyrinae or often collectively referred to as Browns and Arguses, was once a very common species in Singapore. However, in recent years, the species has become very localised, and not very widespread. This may be due to the fact that its caterpillar host plant, Ischaemum muticum (Poaceae), a 'wild grass' is not as common as in the past.  Or could it be due to habitat changes that are no longer conducive for this species to survive?

The Common Three Ring is found mainly along the fringes of our nature reserves, where the species' host plant can still be found. Perhaps, as a strategy to support the remaining population of this once-common butterfly could be to allow some areas near the nature reserves to be left wild with Ischaemum muticum, and these areas managed so that this caterpillar host plant is not wiped out by other invasive plant species. There could possibly be alternative host plants that the species' caterpillars may feed on, and such grasses should also be allowed to survive in the wild.

A male Common Three Ring sun-bathing

The butterfly is greyish brown on the upperside with a large sub-apical yellow-ringed ocellus with two silvery dots on a black background. The underside is a pale buff brown with fine dark striations on both the fore and hindwings. The hindwing has three yellow-ringed ocelli with the tornal pair with two silvery spots.

A female Common Three Ring with opened wings

The species of the Ypthima genus have their English common names after the number of ocelli (or eyespots) on the hindwing. The Common Three Ring is the largest of the species found in Singapore. The species has a rather feeble flight and stays close to the ground, amongst low shrubbery and grasses. Where it occurs, it is not unusual to find more than one individual flying in the area.

A Common Three Ring puddling at a sandy spot

In the early morning hours when the sun begins to warm up the environment, the Common Three Ring can often be seen with its wings opened almost flat to sunbathe in the warm rays of the sun. At other times of the day, it usually flutters around the low grasses and perch with its wings folded upright. The butterfly is also seen feeding at the ripened fruits of the Straits Rhododendron and wild flowers like the Mile-a-Minute weed. Occasionally, it can be observed puddling at damp sandy ground.

Once known to be as common and widespread as the ubiquitous Common Grass Yellow, the Common Three Ring is fast losing its title as the commonest butterfly species in Singapore. In fact, its other cousins in the genus have taken over the title of being the commonest Ypthima in Singapore. Careful observations should record the remaining colonies in the nature reserves and then some management plan carried out to ensure the survival of this once-common species.

A Common Three Ring perched on the leaf of Melastoma malabathricum

Despite not being an iconic or attractive butterfly species, the Common Three Ring is still very much a part of Singapore's extant biodiversity and should continue to be a species that can be found here. For a 'low profile' species, its caterpillar life history of over a month from egg to adult is considered long. Any disruption to its process of reaching adulthood may render this species into the 'rare' status in future.

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Khew SK, Loke PF and Horace Tan

Further Reading and related articles :

Life History of the Common Three Ring

Lords of the Rings - Singapore's Ypthima species
Common Three Ring - A Cinderella of Butterflies

11 November 2017

Lacewings of Singapore

The Lacewings of Singapore

A Malay Lacewing feeding on Ixora javanica flowers

Butterflies of the genus Cethosia are medium-sized, colourful with attractive geometric patterns on their wings and are amongst some of the prettiest butterflies of the region. Collectively referred to as "Lacewings", the Cethosia species feature aposematic colouration - which is the butterfly's display of warning colours to deter would-be predators from eating them. Whenever a butterfly watcher encounters a Lacewing species, it is hard not to stop and admire them as they flutter unhurriedly from flower to flower, or just flying slowly on their way to their next destination.

A Leopard Lacewing perches on a flower

Three species of the genus Cethosia are found in Singapore. One species, the Leopard Lacewing (Cethosia cyane) is a recent addition, only having been seen in Singapore in 2005. This species probably migrated naturally from the north over the years and finally settled in Singapore. Today, it is the commonest species of the three Cethosia in Singapore, as it is regularly observed in forest habitats as well as urban parks and gardens.

A Plain Lacewing resting on a leaf

The other two native species extant in Singapore are predominantly forest-dependent, and are to be usually found in the forested nature reserves. Of these two, the Malay Lacewing (Cethosia hypsea hypsina) is the commoner of the two, and is regularly seen in our nature reserves where its caterpillar host plant, Adenia macrophylla can be found. The last species, the Plain Lacewing (Cethosia methypsea methypsea) is rare and makes intermittent appearances over the years, sometimes not seen for a long time, and then re-appearing and frequently observed for some months, before disappearing again.

The Malay Lacewing (Cethosia hypsea hypsina)

A male Malay Lacewing perches on a leaf in the nature reserves

The upperside of the wings of both the male and female of the Malay Lacewing features a bright orange-red colour with contrasting black borders.outer margins of both wings are serrated, particularly more so on the hindwings, giving the wings a saw-toothed appearance. The underside of the wings display intricate patterns with attractive orange, red, black and white colours.

Female (top) and Male (bottom) Malay Lacewing

Differences between a female (left) and male (right) Malay Lacewing

The female Malay Lacewing has a creamy white patch on the dorsal margin of the forewings above, whilst the more orange-red male does not have this patch. The female also appears a lighter orange in colour compared to the male's orange-red wings. On the underside, the male has a reddish sub-basal patch on the hindwing whilst the female's wings are orange.

The butterfly is mainly found in the forested areas, preferring to remain within the sanctuary of the nature reserves in Singapore, rarely venturing out to the urban parks and gardens. The Malay Lacewing can also be found on our offshore island of Pulau Ubin, particularly on the forested western part of the island. It is regularly photographed feeding at flowering plants like Lantana, Ixora, Syzygium and the Mile-a-Minute weed.

The Plain Lacewing (Cethosia methypsea methypsea)

This species is intermittently found in Singapore. It can be considered very rare, and found only in the forested nature reserves, where its caterpillar host plant, Adenia cordifolia grows as a climbing vine. After making an appearance for a few years in the late 1990's in Singapore, it disappeared and was not seen at all. A period of almost 14 years passed before it re-appeared again, some time in Sep 2014. For a few weeks thereafter, the species was regularly spotted in the same vicinity.

The Plain Lacewing can be distinguished from the Malay Lacewing by the thin white sub-marginal line on the underside of the hindwing, which the Malay Lacewing lacks. On the upperside, the apical area of the forewing is also markedly different in the sub-apical band that is sufficiently distinctive enough to separate the Plain Lacewing from the other two species found in Singapore.

The upperside of the Plain Lacewing generally appears more reddish than the Malay and Leopard Lacewings, and when it flight, the Plain Lacewing is usually faster and more skittish. Unlike its two cousins, the two sexes of the Plain Lacewing are very similar without very distinctive features to separate them.

The Leopard Lacewing (Cethosia cyane)

Male (left) and Female (right) Leopard Lacewing mating pair

The last of the three representatives of the genus is Singapore is a recent addition. After it was first spotted in the western catchment in Singapore in the year 2005, the Leopard Lacewing spread across the island very rapidly. The abundance of its caterpillar host plants, Passiflora foetida and Passiflora suberosa, both of which are considered urban creeper-weeds, is probably one of the reason why this immigrant has colonised and stayed on for the long term in Singapore.

Male (top) and Female (bottom) Leopard Lacewing

The Leopard Lacewing is by far the commonest species of the three Cethosia in Singapore today. It can be found foraging in urban parks and gardens, feeding on flowering plants in community butterfly gardens, in the company of other urban butterfly species. It is seasonally common and often several individuals may be seen in the same vicinity regularly.

Male (top) and Female (bottom) Leopard Lacewing

The male is orange above, with black borders, similar to the Malay and Plain Lacewings. It appears more orange on the upperside. The female is a creamy yellow above and is distinctively different from the male. On the underside, the large series of post-discal spots, set in a rather broad white sub-marginal band, sets it apart from its other two cousins in the genus.

Underside and Upperside shots of a Red Lacewing

To the north, in Malaysia and Thailand, a fourth Cethosia species can be found. This species is called the Red Lacewing, or sometimes referred to as the Batik Lacewing - Cethosia biblis. This species has rather distinctive sub-apical markings on both the upper- and underside of the forewings and easily distinguished from its cousins. The Red Lacewing has not been recorded from Singapore yet, and hopefully, it can be a new addition to the Singapore butterfly fauna in the future.

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Chng CK, Khew SK, Koh CH, Loke PF, Horace Tan and Mark Wong

04 November 2017

Butterfly Photography at Our Local Parks - Bukit Panjang Butterfly Garden

Butterfly Photography at Our Local Parks
Featuring : Bukit Panjang Butterfly Garden

An aerial view of Bukit Panjang Butterfly Garden

Almost five months ago to the day, the community volunteers participated in a Community Planting Day at Bukit Panjang Butterfly Garden. The brainchild of grassroots activist Sussie Ketit, it had the strong support of Mayor Teo Ho Pin, the Member of Parliament for Bukit Panjang and the local community gardeners in the area. With the help of volunteers from the Seletar Country Club group under the capable leadership of Mr Foo JL, the Bukit Panjang Butterfly Garden Phase II took shape.

And this was how it all started...  Community Planting and saplings in the planters just 5 months ago

Back on 3 June, the planters were prepared with topsoil and compost and various butterfly host and nectaring plants were readied for the community to do some gardening. Mr Foo's strategy of concentrating the plants in organised planter beds surrounded by concrete kerbs was to eliminate the accidental removal of the butterfly host/nectaring plants (many of which are 'weeds') by maintenance personnel. It was clear that any plants found within the planter beds were intentionally planted there and should not be cleared as 'weeds'.

Lush greenery in the planters just 5 months later!

Fast forward five months later, under the tender loving care of the volunteers, especially Sebastian Chia, Lydia Davina Yeo, Cheng Khim, Mr Foo, Evangeline Seah and many other passionate volunteers who spent a lot of their free time tending to the plants and watering them, the Bukit Panjang Butterfly Garden has now attracted many species of urban and even some forest butterflies. The planter beds are now covered with lush greenery and the butterfly nectaring plants providing sustenance to the visiting butterflies.

All grown up, with lots of tender loving care!

It is amazing, when you consider the empty planters just five months back. Our equatorial climate is just ideal for the growth of plants and with some effort in maintaining the plants, the results can be quite satisfying. Today, the plants are doing well and the butterfly species count has reached 51 species in just a short five months!

Host and nectaring plants aplenty.  Can you spot the Mottled Emigrant on its caterpillar host plant?

The mix of plants ranged from host plants like Rattlebox Weed, Crown Flower, Seven Golden Candlesticks, Blood Flower, and many more. Nectaring plants included Lantana, Red Tree Shrub, Purple Snakeweed, Spanish Needle, Bandicoot Berry, and so on. In the early morning hours and on a bright sunny day, a visitor can see many butterflies fluttering around the plants, feeding and laying eggs on their preferred caterpillar host plants.

Crows and Tigers attracted to Eupatorium squamosum at the butterfly garden

The alkaloids in the Asteraceae species, Eupatorium squamosum that was cultivated in the planters appear to be as attractive to the Danainaes (Tigers and Crows) as the Indian Heliotrope and the Rattlebox Weed plants. Amongst the Danainae species observed at this plant's flowers are the Striped Blue Crow, Blue and Dark Glassy Tigers and a Blue Spotted Crow.

A high-flying butterfly's view of the Bukit Panjang Butterfly Garden

The success of this small butterfly garden, spanning about 150m by about 50m, is probably due to its proximity to the Central Catchment Nature Reserves. The park connector network that links up this area to the biodiversity-rich nature reserves also helps as a 'bridge' to facilitate butterflies' movements along nature-friendly 'highways'.

Although the butterfly garden is no more than 10-15 away from a major road, the use of plants as buffers help to mitigate the effects of vehicular exhaust pollution and fast-moving vehicles from the butterfly garden

Although the Bukit Panjang Butterfly Garden is located just about 10-15 m away from the busy Bukit Panjang Road, air pollution and the movement of vehicles is mitigated by rows of buffer plants that shield the butterfly garden. Immediately next to the 3+3 lane major arterial road is a green roadside planting verge that features Heliconias and other shrubs. Further in, two rows of Lakka Palms and Coconut palms, with more Heliconias buffer the butterfly garden.

Creative artwork on the concrete kerbs by young and old artists lend a splash of colours to the planters at the butterfly garden

The assortment of plants in the planters have been effective in attracting butterflies. In a further attempt to beautify the planters, the boring precast concrete kerbs are given a fresh coat of paint. Volunteers, young and old, helped to add a splash of colours, in the form of stylised butterflies and plants to the kerbs.

Butterflies bred from caterpillars found at the butterfly garden

The community volunteers are trained to breed caterpillars found on the host plants at the butterfly garden, and the eclosed butterflies are released back into the garden to sustain the population of butterflies there. The Town Council has been requested not to spray pesticides at the butterfly garden to ensure that the caterpillars and butterflies are not killed.

An assortment of butterflies found at the Bukit Panjang Butterfly Garden

The gardeners who are maintaining the area are also taught how to make compost from the dead leaves that are collected from the trees, and to practise sustainable gardening. The compost is then used for the planters to help sustain healthy plant growth. The community education and awareness efforts also help to inform visitors to the butterfly garden not to kill the caterpillars and butterflies as they are part of our natural biodiversity.

So the next time you are in the Bukit Panjang area, do drop by and take a look at the Bukit Panjang Butterfly Garden and see how many butterflies you can count fluttering amongst the shrubbery. Here you see a variety of butterflies that can be found at the butterfly garden.

How to get there :

There are many bus services that bring visitors to the bus stop along Bukit Panjang Road. Alight just in front of Blk 222 and walk eastwards towards the Bukit Timah Expressway (BKE). For those taking the MRT, alight at Choa Chu Kang MRT station (NS4), hop on to the LRT and alight at Pending Station (BP8). Drivers can access the HDB carpark via Petir Road and park your car near Blk 213 (carpark CKBJ8), where parking is free on Sundays and Public Holidays.

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Alan Ang, Janice Ang, Sebastian Chia, Foo JL, Sussie Ketit, Khew SK, Michael Khor, Or Cheng Khim, Soh Kam-Yung, Irene Tan and Alson Teo