28 July 2018

Sergeants of Singapore

The Sergeants of Singapore
Featuring the 5 Athyma species in Singapore

A female form-neftina Colour Sergeant feeds on the ripened fruit of the Straits Rhododendron

The genus Athyma comprises of butterflies with rather robust bodies and are powerful fliers. They belong to the subfamily Limetidinae of the family Nymphalidae. The butterflies have a horizontal striped appearance, usually black and white in the males, and females in some species that have the white bands replaced with either orange or brown.

A Common Sergeant (Athyma perius perius) that is no longer found in Singapore today

The are currently five extant species of the Athyma species in Singapore - often referred to as "Sergeants" by their English common names. There was a sixth species recorded from Singapore by the early authors - Common Sergeant (Athyma perius perius), but this species has not been seen in the wild for almost five or more decades in Singapore, and no longer considered an extant species here.

A male Colour Sergeant (Athyma nefte subrata) perches on a leaf

The other five "Sergeant" species continued to be regularly observed in Singapore over the years, with some more common than others. They are medium-sized butterflies with wingspans averaging between 55mm to 65mm. This blog post features all the five species and compares their differences and diagnostic features to distinguish and identify them.

The Lance Sergeant (Athyma pravara helma)

A Lance Sergeant.  Note the cell streak on the forewing which is complete and unbroken

The Lance Sergeant is the most distinctive of these black-and-white Sergeants in Singapore. The cell streak on the forewing is unbroken and club-like and this sets it apart from all the other Athymas found in Singapore.

It was a recent new discovery to Singapore, recorded in the mid-1990's and added to the Singapore Checklist. It has made a regular appearance thereafter, usually spotted when feeding on the ripened fruits of the Straits/Singapore Rhododendron (Melastoma malabathricum) and at flowering Syzygium trees.

It can be occasionally observed puddling at damp muddy footpaths in the nature reserves. The full life history has been recorded on a species of Uncaria found in the forested nature reserves of Singapore. In terms of size, the Lance Sergeant is probably the smallest of the five Athymas found in Singapore.

The Colour Sergeant (Athyma nefte subrata)

A male Colour Sergeant sunbathing. Note the blue sheen on the white bands

The Colour Sergeant is the most often seen species amongst the Athymas in Singapore. It can be observed at urban parks and gardens as well as in the nature reserves. The males are black and white striped in the usual Sergeant look, but the white stripes appear bluish when viewed with angled lighting.

A female Colour Sergeant - form-subrata

A female Colour Sergeant - form-neftina

The females of this species occur in two forms - the orange-and-black form-neftina and the brown-and-black form-subrata. The orange female form is the commoner of the two forms. The undersides are usually paler in colour with a more washed-out appearance.

A female Colour Sergeant form-neftina feeding on the ripened fruit of the Straits Rhododendron

Males are fond of perching on the top surfaces of leaves with wings opened flat, and 'attacking' intruders that wander into its space. Both sexes are often found feeding greedily on the ripened fruits of the Straits/Singapore Rhododendron.

The Dot-Dash Sergeant (Athyma kanwa kanwa)

The strange English common name of this Sergeant probably came from its cell streak which ends in a triangular 'dot'. The species is largely forest-dependent and is not often found outside the sanctuary of the nature reserves in Singapore. It is rare, and usually spotted singly.

A Dot-Dash Sergeant sunbathing with its wings opened flat.  Note the narrow cell-end streak and the sharp and angular spot at the end of the streak

A powerful flyer like its other cousins in the group, it sports the flap-glide flight characteristic of the other Sergeants. It is skittish and alert, making it a challenge to photograph it, as any slight disturbance will spook it to speed away and up to the treetops.

A puddling Dot-Dash Sergeant

The Dot-Dash Sergeant has the usual black-and-white stripes on its wings. The cell streak on the forewing above is separated from the triangular spot (which is sharp and angular). The underside is a greyish-brown.

The Malay Staff Sergeant (Athyma reta moorei)

A Malay Staff Sergeant.  Note the twice-constricted cell streak on the forewing

The Malay Staff Sergeant is probably the rarest of the genus in Singapore, and is usually observed within the forested areas in the nature reserves. As with most of its other cousins, it is usually spotted singly, either sunbathing on the tops of leaves, or feeding at flowering plants.

The species is also known to puddle at damp muddy footpaths. The distinguishing markings of the Malay Staff Sergeant is the twice constricted white cell streak and the triangular spot is separated from this streak. The triangular spot is also more rounded compared to the Dot-Dash Sergeant's sharper and angular shape.

The Studded Sergeant (Athyma asura idita)

A puddling Studded Sergeant.  Note the black centred submarginal white spots on the hindwings

The Studded Sergeant is the largest member of the Athyma genus found in Singapore. It is also a forest-dependent species but is also regularly spotted in the vicinity of mangrove areas at Pulau Ubin and Sg Buloh Wetland Reserve.

A Studded Sergeant with wings folded upright.  Note the black-centred apical spots on the forewing

The cell streak is narrow and the cell-end spot is small and rounded. The unique feature of the Studded Sergeant is the black-centred white spots at the submarginal band of the hindwing. In the local subspecies, the spots are sometimes indistinct. The apical spots on the forewing are also black-centred.

The colourful caterpillar of the Studded Sergeant

The Studded Sergeant has been locally bred on two host plants - Ilex cymosa (Aquifoliaceae), and another unidentified Ilex species in the nature reserve. The caterpillar is attractive, with bright blue spots on a green body amidst sharp spines.

A Studded Sergeant feeding at the flowers of the Mile-a-Minute weed

And there you have it, the five "Sergeants" that you can spot in Singapore. And the next time you encounter one, you can hopefully be equipped to identify which of these Sergeants that you have spotted!

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Khew SK, Koh CH, Loke PF, Nelson Ong, Jonathan Soong, Horace Tan and Anthony Wong

21 July 2018

Butterfly of the Month - July 2018

Butterfly of the Month - July 2018
The Purple Bush Brown (Mycalesis orseis nautilus)

The month of July 2018 will probably be most remembered for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, a miraculous cavern rescue in Chiang Rai, Thailand, and the major cybersecurity breach of personal data in Singapore. We live in interesting times, and there are often outcomes that are still unpredictable, like who would win the World Cup, despite all means (including cats, birds and anything that can be believed!) of soothsaying by those who gambled away small fortunes.

A Purple Bush Brown found in southern Thailand - same subspecies as the one in Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore

So France won the 2018 World Cup. Along the way, the usually successful Latin American teams dropped like flies, and so did defending champions Germany. Asian teams didn't make it far into the games, with only Japan remaining in the last 16 before bowing out to Belgium despite leading 2-0. The next World Cup in 2022 will be held in Doha, Qatar, and the games shifted to the end of the year to avoid the 40+ degrees summer heat in the Middle Eastern nation.

Then over in the sleepy provincial town of Chiang Rai in northern Thailand, a group of 12 teenagers and their football coach decided to take an excursion into the cave complex at Tham Luang. As this is the monsoon season in northern Thailand, the torrential storms caused flash floods that cut off the group's exit as rain water flooded the passages. A search-and-rescue operation commenced and it was only after more than 10 days of searching that they were found on a ledge more than 3km into the cave complex.

The rescue operation that followed was described as nothing short of a miracle, as the personnel involved took great risks to bring a group of boys out through the treacherous labyrinth, many parts of which were totally submerged. All in all, it was a successful rescue operation with all the boys and their coach making it out with much difficulty. Sadly, there was one casualty, a Thai Navy SEAL diver who ran out of air whilst playing a crucial support role of bringing oxygen tanks and placing them along the route for the rescuers.

The Purple Bush Brown is often encountered flying low amongst the undergrowth, in deep forest shade, perching on the top of a leaf or blade of grass.  

Back home in Singapore, hackers infiltrated the government's health database and stole the confidential records of over 1.5 million patients, including the Prime Minister's drug prescriptions. Whilst the government had to soothe alarmed patients whose personal data had been compromised, the government's Cyber Security Agency will be busy patching up vulnerabilities and weaknesses in the IT system. In this cyber age and the era of connectivity, I cannot imagine having to go back to the paper and filing systems of the last millennium. Hence it is a risk that the government and any private company will have to face and resolve, moving forward.

We move back to our butterfly world with our feature butterfly of the month of July 2018. This month's butterfly is the Purple Bush Brown (Mycalesis orseis nautilus). The species is adorned with ocelli (or eye spots) on the margins of both wings and is one of many similar-looking species in the Mycalesis genus, often referred to as Bush Browns.

In Singapore, the Purple Bush Brown is the rarest species amongst the six species found here. However, the ocelli are distinctive and identification of the Purple Bush Brown is less challenging when compared to separating a few of its other close cousins. The Purple Bush Brown has prominent and distinct yellow-ringed ocelli that are rather uniform in size.

Individuals of this species have a full complement of ocelli on both wings with rather crisp colours and distinct outlines on the ocelli. The relatively uniform post-discal band is broad and faintly violet-washed in pristine individuals. There is a thin dark brown sub-basal line on both wings.

The butterfly is rather local in distribution and is considered rare in Singapore. It is a forest-dependent species and is not encountered beyond the sanctuary of heavily shaded forested areas in the nature reserves. It is usually observed singly, flying low amongst the undergrowth and grasses in heavy shade.

The Purple Bush Brown has also been observed to feed on overripe fallen fruits on the forest floor. The life history of this species has not been recorded yet in Singapore, although its caterpillars are likely to feed on a type of grass, like many of its other closely related species in the sub-family Satyrinae.

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Antonio Giudici, Federick Ho, Khew SK, Koh CH, Loke PF, Billy Oh, Tan CP and Benjamin Yam.

14 July 2018

Interpretative Signage in Butterfly Gardens

Butterfly Gardens
Importance of Interpretative Signage

In recent times, there has been a greater interest in setting up free-ranging butterfly gardens (not the enclosed gardens in a zoo-like environment) in both private and public premises. Over the years, our local knowledge about butterflies and their caterpillar host plants has increased through field observations and breeding efforts by amateur butterfly enthusiasts. Hence, if an individual or organisation wishes to set up their own butterfly garden, it is a simple case of cultivating the right caterpillar host plants, nectaring plants and creating a butterfly-friendly habitat, and then waiting for the winged jewels to appear!

Well, maybe not that overly simple! In creating a free-ranging butterfly garden, one has to look at the chosen site in relation to the surroundings, the catchment areas nearby, a quick baseline survey of the butterfly species in the vicinity, and then choose the right plants to attract the butterflies. A very important critical success factor of butterfly gardens is that there should be minimal or no spraying of pesticides at or near the site.

Interpretative sign in front of Pomelo bush at Butterfly Hill @ Pulau Ubin

And so there have been quite a few butterfly gardens and trails created all around Singapore. Some are, of course, more successful than others, depending on the people who are maintaining the butterfly garden (usually Town Council, NParks, other government agencies and volunteers) and the sustained interest of key leaders in the community. However, creating a butterfly garden does not just end there. Whilst there may be butterflies fluttering around, it would be a missed opportunity if there were no interpretative and educational signage to educate the general public about butterflies. Otherwise, visitors who are less acquainted with butterflies, caterpillars, host plants and so on, will be none the wiser after visiting the butterfly garden.

Interpretative sign in front of a bamboo grove at Butterfly Hill @ Pulau Ubin, showcasing some butterfly species whose caterpillars feed on bamboo

This is where interpretative signage becomes an important element for education and creating a better awareness of the ecological requirements of butterflies and plants. Two years ago, ButterflyCircle had the privilege of working together with the National Parks Board to put up a series of interpretative signs for the Butterfly Hill at Pulau Ubin.

Butterfly's eye view of Butterfly Hill @ Pulau Ubin

The creation of the Butterfly Hill at Pulau Ubin started way back in 2005 when a barren knoll just next to the Jelutong Campsite on Pulau Ubin was cultivated with butterfly attracting plants as an initial experiment to create a butterfly-friendly habitat. It was almost a decade in the making, when the hill became a very successful butterfly garden and is often teeming with butterflies on an ideal sunny day. Today, it is definitely a 'must-go' destination for butterfly watchers.

NParks then decided to work on a series of interpretative signs to create awareness about butterflies, showcase the butterfly species that can be regularly seen on Butterfly Hill, and their close association with plants. This blog article is a narrative of the 15 educational signs, mounted on pedestals and scattered around strategic spots at Butterfly Hill.

The introductory sign located at the entrance of Butterfly Hill tells the story of how this butterfly garden came to be

The introductory sign tells the story of how Butterfly Hill at Pulau Ubin came about and how many species of plants are cultivated at the football field sized butterfly garden. The sign is strategically located at the primary entrance to Butterfly Hill where visitors can stop by to learn about this conservation project that started with a collaborative effort between NParks and ButterflyCircle more than 10 years ago.

The next couple of signs give an overview about butterflies in general, their ecological role in nature, biology and differences between butterflies and moths. The language is kept as simple as possible so that readers do not find it too difficult to understand the educational message that is being conveyed. Both these signs are located at the top of the knoll near the shelter.

The next 12 signs describes the butterfly species that are found in the vicinity of Butterfly Hill and their relationship to plants of particular interest e.g. nectaring plants, caterpillar host plants and other feature plants. Often, where possible, the signs are located strategically next to where these plants are cultivated. Each sign also features a QR code, which brings you to NParks FloraWeb where you can learn even more details about the plant featured on the sign.

The interpretative sign about the Crown Flower, and the location of the sign in front of a clump of Crown Flower plants educates the visitor about the butterfly-plant relationship of the Plain Tiger and Crown Flower

For example, where the Crown Flower (Calotropis gigantea), the caterpillar host plant of the Plain Tiger is grown, the interpretative sign that describes the plant and butterfly is located just in front of a clump of the Crown Flower plants. Often, as one reads the sign, the Plain Tiger will be fluttering in full sight of the visitor, and frequently ovipositing on the leaves of the plant. If one looks a bit closer, one may even find the caterpillars feeding on the plant. This makes the information on the sign very effective if the visitor can connect immediately, the butterfly and its host plant from field observations.

Another plant of interest is the Rattle Weed (Crotalaria retusa). Whilst the plant is neither a host nor a nectaring plant, the Rattle Weed contains alkaloids which many Danainae butterflies love. This unique plant attracts these Crow and Tiger butterflies and the relationship of this plant to the butterflies is immediately evident to visitors.

Interpretative sign with information about nectaring plants for butterflies

And then there are signs that depict the butterflies' favourite nectaring plants like the Snakeweed (Stachytarpheta indica) and the String Bush (Cordia cylindristachya). Again, the plant details are described so that the visitor can learn more about these plants, as well as the butterflies that visit them to feed on the nectar from the flowers.

Various caterpillar host plants that support their respective butterfly species at Butterfly Hill @ Pulau Ubin

The remaining interpretative signs depicting host plants of specific butterflies like the Bamboo, Chinese Violet, Batoko Plum, Lime and Pomelo and others are also carefully located where these plants are cultivated. To attract the butterflies whose caterpillars feed on these host plants, various nectaring plants are planted nearby so that visitors can chance on these butterflies when they feed on the flowers.

Caterpillar host plant Seven Golden Candlesticks (Senna alata) are cultivated behind the interpretative signage displaying information about the plant and the butterflies that are associated with it 

In conclusion, whilst designing and creating a butterfly garden is not difficult with the correct information on plants and the myriad of information available on the internet, it is also important not to miss the opportunity to create awareness and promote the conservation of butterflies through the use of interpretative and educational signage that help to spread the knowledge about our butterflies. So the next time you visit Butterfly Hill @ Pulau Ubin, do take some time and learn more about butterflies and the plants that are associated with the butterflies.

Text by Khew SK ; Photos by Khew SK and Robert Teo