04 August 2019

Demons of Singapore

Demons of Singapore
Featuring Demon Butterflies in Singapore

A Chocolate Demon feeding on the flower of the Torch Ginger. whose leaves also happen to be its caterpillar host plant

Since the beginning of August 2019, one can almost encounter the burning of joss paper, joss sticks, candles and food offerings in most housing estates. The Hungry Ghost Festival, which falls on the 7th month of the Chinese calendar, started on 1 Aug and will continue for a month. The Festival, where Buddhists and Taoists believe that the Gates of Hell opens for a month, to allow spirits and souls from the netherworld to roam freely on Earth, seeking food and other offerings.

The Chinese believe that demons guard the Gates of Hell that are opened during the Hungry Ghost Festival to allow spirits of the departed to roam freely for a month.

A traditional stage set-up during the Hungry Ghost Festival

Other than burning paper offerings, raucous and loud musical and Chinese traditional performances will also liven up heartlands areas as tents are set up to house massive dinners, auctions, operas and, of course, getai­ (“song stage” in Chinese) shows. The last named shows often feature scantily-clad girls who sing a variety of songs in local dialects and Mandarin. If you are planning to catch any of these shows, just be sure to leave the front row seats empty for the “spirits” and demons who supposedly crave such entertainment too!

There are also many superstitions that are followed during this season include refraining from leaving umbrellas open inside the home, as that is believed to invite homeless spirits. Some avoid killing insects (butterflies too!) as they could be deceased ancestors who have been reincarnated. Other no-nos include walking around in dark lonely places like cemeteries or forests, especially at night.

So whilst the spirits, demons and other denizens of the netherworld roam around and seek their freedom for the next 25 days before the Gates of Hell close again for another year, let us take a look at our local demons flying around in Singapore. Our butterfly Demons that is...

1) The Chocolate Demon (Ancistroides nigrita maura)

A pristine Chocolate Demon perches on a leaf in the shade

This urban Hesperiidae (skipper) can usually be found in the vicinity of its caterpillar host plant, the Torch Ginger (Etlingera elatior) and other ginger-type plants. It is relatively common and is well distributed across the island. The Chocolate Demon is a large skipper and flies with an erratic and bobbing flight amongst low shrubbery.

The Chocolate Demon has one of the longest proboscis amongst the butterflies found in Singapore

The Chocolate Demon is dark brown above and unmarked. On the underside, however, the marginal areas of both wings appear paler than the ground colour. A unique feature of this butterfly is its long proboscis with which is uses to probe deep into flowers for nectar.

A Chocolate Demon sunbathes in a typical skipper fashion

The species often stops to sunbathe in a typical skipper pose - with its hindwings opened flat whilst its forewings are opened at a 45deg angle to the body. It is often observed to feed on bird droppings and other animal excretions, but is also equally regularly encountered feeding on a variety of flowers, one of which is the Torch Ginger's attractive pink flowers.

2) The Banded Demon (Notocrypta paralysos varians)

A mating pair of Banded Demon

The Banded Demon is another skipper that often stays in the vicinity of its host plant, Costus lucanusianus a species of ginger that grows in the shady understorey in Singapore's nature reserves and other forested areas. It is a rapid flyer and can be skittish as it zips around low amongst the shrubbery. It can also be found in urban parks and gardens, besides the nature reserves.

The Banded Demon is a deep brown above with a distinct white discal band composed of large rounded contiguous spots on the forewing. There is usually a white hyaline spot in space 4 of the forewing, but this spot can be absent in some individuals. The underside, which is a paler purplish-brown is distinctly paler along the wing margins.

The butterfly is usually encountered in the early morning hours of the day, sunbathing with its wings in the usual skipper fashion. It likes to feed on the flowers of the Chinese Violet (Asystasia gangetica), and flies rapidly from flower to flower, using its long proboscis to reach inside the flower for nectar.

3) The Grass Demon (Udaspes folus)

A Grass Demon feeding on the flower of Mussaenda

The last Demon extant in Singapore occurs mainly in urban parks and gardens in the vicinity of its preferred host plant, Turmeric (Cucurma longa), and other gingers. It is regularly found in herb and spice gardens in Singapore, where ginger and turmeric are cultivated. It is a fast-flyer but usually zips around at a low level.

The Grass Demon is dark brown above, with the forewing featuring a white discal fascia comprised of several large white spots. The hindwing has a large white discal patch on the upperside. The underside is paler and appears reddish brown in pristine individuals. The hindwing cilia is chequered in freshly eclosed individuals. The antenna has a whitish band just below the club.

A Grass Demon sunbathes in typical skipper fashion

The butterfly is observed to feed on flowers in the early morning hours. It also likes to puddle on bird droppings and other animal excretions. An often-observed behaviour of the Grass Demon is that when it perches on a top surface of a leaf to sunbathe, it opens and closes its wings rhythmically.

And so we are introduced to the three Demons in Singapore that are not part of the Festival of Hungry Ghosts, but are part of Singapore's butterfly diversity.

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Khew SK, Koh CH, Loke PF, Tan CP and Anthony Wong