27 December 2020

2020 - Looking Back

ButterflyCircle 2020 - Looking Back...
The Year in Review

A Banded Royal perches atop a fern, contemplating the year ahead

The year 2020 will most certainly go down in history as a year "where the world came to a standstill". Or as some would prefer to call it a "Reset Year". COVID19, a coronavirus that purportedly originated in the city of Wuhan in China, wreaked so much havoc across the world that one will wonder if life would ever be "normal" again? This mother of all disruptions affected the entire world and across all seven continents. Cities were locked down, businesses severely impacted, economies foundered, livelihoods were threatened, and lives lost.

A male Cycad Blue perches on a leaf to sunbathe
A Common Mime feeding at the red flowers of the Javanese Ixora

It was also a year where we saw, read about and for some of us, personally experienced the best and worst of humankind. At one end of the spectrum, we saw the rush for provisions in supermarkets and shopping centres. The ubiquitous toilet paper mystery threw up many theories about why this humble household product is often the first to disappear from shelves! But we also saw acts of human kindness and gestures that would certainly "warm the cockles of ones' hearts".

A newly-eclosed Common Birdwing hanging onto the flower spike of the Pink Snakeweed

In Singapore, the government was quick to act to manage the virus initially, but did not predict the surge in infections in the foreign worker community, which created a scare, with the rapid escalation of the numbers of COVID-positive individuals on the island. But swift, hard decisions were made, and the situation finally came under control after several nail-biting months.

In 2020, this blog started off by introducing our urban butterflies, common species that can be seen in our urban parks and gardens. Species that most people would be able to encounter in residential areas, parks and park connectors and urban green spaces. Six species were featured, and these are probably the easiest to spot, even in downtown CBD - such is our City In a Garden (and moving to a City In Nature), where biodiversity thrives.

Our Butterflies of the Month series continued in 2020, featuring another 12 species, and bringing the total to 158 species of butterflies that make Singapore their home. This series, which started with the Malay Lacewing in as the feature butterfly back in December 2007, has continued for the past thirteen years and features each species in greater detail, showing the excellent photographs contributions by the photographers in ButterflyCircle's forums and social media platforms.

We continued our series of articles on the collective groups of butterflies known by their English common names. This year, we showcased the Nawabs, Emigrants, Line Blues, Plushblues, Eggflies, Bush Browns and Lascars found in Singapore. Known by their collective English common names, these articles compared the individual species in these groups of butterflies, some of which are very similar in appearance. Diagnostic features elaborated in the articles helped to distinguish and ID them in the field.

A special blogpost was dedicated to the Lunar New Year butterfly teacup series that ButterflyCircle members contributed photos to. The 2020 edition of the teacup featured the urban sun-loving species, the Blue Pansy. This completes the collection of six teacups from 2015-2020 and they will be complemented with a teapot to complete the entire set in 2021. Special thanks to Ms Ho Ching for giving ButterflyCircle members the opportunity to showcase and immortalise their work in this teacup set.

We discussed the morphology of butterflies in the article on polymorphism, where the various forms, both males and females were investigated. Some of the reasons for the different morphs were offered for discussion - like mimicry to avoid predation, or even environmental reasons. Another article asked questions about certain species of butterflies in Singapore where variants are so consistent that whether there is a possibility that they have become morphs or forms of the same species?

Despite the imminent danger of the COVID19 pandemic, five members of ButterflyCircle had already planned an overseas outing to Mahua in the state of Sabah in East Malaysia. After considering the various options and weighing the risks, and as it was still uncertain as to the state of unprecedent measures that were to come later, we decided to go ahead with the trip in early February. Even though there were still no travel restrictions back then, we still took all the precautions of wearing facemasks on the trip there and back.

It was a relatively fruitful outing to Mahua (for some of us, a 2nd trip there). Hunting down the Bornean endemics was fun, and we managed to get a few of them on our hit list. A few of the subspecies looked quite different from the Singapore and Malaysian species, and we took our fill of photos on that 7D/6N trip. This time around, we explored a few other locations that could be fruitful locations for butterfly shooting on future trips.

Then we featured more plant-butterfly relationships with four articles. Two favourite nectaring plants articles were added to the series with our feature plants/flowers of the Globe Amaranth and the Blood Flower. Then we discussed the importance of Mistletoes (parasitic plants) to a variety of butterfly species, and the unique Danainae-attracting Rattlebox Plant and the interesting behaviour of the Tiger and Crow butterflies to extract the fluids from different parts of the plant.

Two blogposts featured some non-native or exotic butterflies - some of which have become common resident species in Singapore. There was also a discussion on the baseline checklists and what came to be defined as a non-native species to Singapore is largely based on the works of the early authors. These "exotics" range from those that could have flown in from neighbouring Malaysia, to those species that may have migrated from faraway geographies like India, Sri Lanka and even all the way from the US!

Butterfly procreation was the next topic on the cards, and we featured the article in two parts, with plenty of photos of butterflies "doing it". We also asked questions that would prompt more observations of these mating pairs - like "which of the two sexes does the flying when they are paired?" or "how long can they sustain their flight as the one flying has to carry about twice its usual weight?". Whilst there may be no hard and fast answers, more field observations may shed further light on the behaviour of butterflies.

A scientific paper was featured in the blogpost "Hidden in Plain Sight" which described the important discovery that was somehow overlooked for a long time - that the female Malay Staff Sergeant was actually orange in colour, and that the species was all this time sexually dimorphic! How this fact could have been overlooked for so long is amazing. And it is thanks to Horace Tan who stumbled on this when he was documenting the species' life history, and with the scientific rigour of Dr Laurence Kirton and Dr Phon Chooi Khim, this misidentification has now been corrected in a paper published in the Raffles Bulletin.

I then shared my digital photography journey over the past two decades, specifically detailing the camera bodies, lenses and other technical paraphernalia that were used to photograph butterflies. From the early adoption of digital photography using the now-archaic 2Mp cameras, to the latest high end 45Mp DSLR. As the photographic equipment became more and more advanced, it was necessary to focus on what makes a good butterfly photograph and the satisfaction of capturing a butterfly in its full resplendent beauty on the camera's sensor.

The COVID19 pandemic was in full swing by mid-year, and many observers noticed that the lack of maintenance workers and grass cutters resulted in many areas of Singapore overgrown with wild flowers (or what would be considered weeds). With abundant host and nectaring plants, the number of butterflies in urban areas increased significantly, prompting many nature lovers to opine that perhaps we should allow areas with minimal grass-cutting and pruning to conserve our local butterfly (and other insect) biodiversity.

Over many years of butterfly watching and photography also yielded observations of how Crab Spiders lay in wait for unsuspecting butterflies flitting from flower to flower. Many butterfly photographers have collected photos of dead butterflies at the jaws of these stealthy predators, waiting and camouflaging themselves amongst the flowers that the butterflies visit.

Our Life History expert, Dr Horace Tan returned this year to document the early stages of 3 species in his usual meticulous style which sets the gold standard for how the documentation of egg-to-adult should be done. We have, thus far, documented a total of 198 species' life histories on this blog, the majority of which is Horace's hard work. Three species, the Malay Staff Sergeant, Ciliate Blue and the Banded Royal were featured in 2020.

Two of our public parks that are relatively good butterfly watching and shooting locations were featured this year. These parks are part of the Southern Ridges parks and form a series of linear parks that are interconnected. These parks, Kent Ridge Park and Telok Blangah Hill Park, have yielded some surprises in the past. Hill-topping activity occasionally brings rare Lycaenidae and Nymphalidae to these elevated parks.

And then a vagrant Swamp Tiger caused a bit of an excitement when it was spotted on Pulau Ubin in August this year. Typically a mangrove resident in Malaysia, e.g. Kuala Selangor Nature Reserve, a female Swamp Tiger was observed at Butterfly Hill on Pulau Ubin. We then updated our "Flying Tigers" article to add in the new discovery, and to record that we have 10 species of these "Tigers" in Singapore to date.

Along the lines of new discoveries and re-discoveries, we featured some species that are extant in Singapore, were even common at some point in time, but then suddenly disappeared for many years. What happened to these species? Were they displaced by development? Or something happened to the habitats or host plants that they prefer? Are there conservation efforts or lessons that we can glean from such observations where interventions can help save these species?

I "celebrated" the milestone of my 1000th article on this blog (on 11 Oct 2020). It had been a long and determined journey that I resolved to contribute a minimum of a post per week on this blog. Just to share information, knowledge and technical knowledge about butterflies, to the best of my ability. I also mentioned that come 2021, I will slow down (but not stop altogether) the articles on this blog. I will just keep to the articles on the Butterfly of the Month, and then post any articles of interest as and when any new information is available. Horace Tan will also have a few incomplete life histories that should be completed and these will be posted to create the repository of the best available information on Singapore's Butterflies' life histories on any digital platform.

It has been a worthwhile and fulfilling journey of blogging for the past 13 years, and I would like to humbly thank members of ButterflyCircle, especially Horace Tan and Mei Yee who helped contribute many articles on the blog, and all the photographers whose excellent work made the blog posts come alive.  I would also like to sincerely thank the small group of supporters from Singapore, and all around the world. I am grateful that some of you have dropped in once in awhile to pen your words of encouragement and appreciation for the articles posted and a few have even given suggestions for new areas to explore and/or write about. This blog will remain as a repository of information and articles about butterflies, albeit at a much slower pace from here on.

I would like to take this opportunity to wish all readers in Singapore and all around the world a Happy (and hopefully COVID-free) 2021!!!

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Janice Ang, David Chan, Bob Cheong, Sunny Chir, Huang CJ, Khew SK, Koh CH, Lim CA, Loh MY, Loke PF, Simon Sng, Jonathan Soong, Horace Tan, Anthony Wong and Mark Wong

20 December 2020

Lascars of Singapore

The Lascars of Singapore
Featuring the Lascar butterflies of Singapore

A Malayan Lascar perches on a leaf after a shower

The Lascar butterflies belong to a group of species under the sub-family Limetidinae of the family Nymphalidae. These Lascars were probably so named after an Indian sailor, army servant, or artilleryman. An excerpt from Wikipedia reads "The British East India Company recruited seamen from areas around its factories in Bengal, Assam and Gujarat, as well as from Yemen, British Somaliland and Portuguese Goa. They were known by the British as lascars. These seamen included Indian sailors, who would go on to serve on British until the 1960s."

A Common Lascar perched with open wings 
A Perak Lascar feeding on the flowers of a Syzygium tree

In our butterfly world, the Lascars are butterflies that are orange-and-black banded. They are generally small butterflies with wingspans usually not exceeding 50mm. They have a weak flap-glide-flap flight, usually flying amongst low shrubbery, but can quickly take off to the treetops when alarmed. There are currently four different species of Lascars in Singapore, although there is a strong likelihood of a fifth species due to the difficulty of separating them from field shots.

A Burmese Lascar perched on the leaf of a Singapore Rhododendron

The typical Lascar is alert and skittish, and when in flight, not easy to distinguish amongst the different species. They are usually found in forested habitats, although they are widely distributed across Singapore. One of the species is often associated with back-mangrove habitats due to its host plant being found in such areas.

1. The Malayan Lascar (Lasippa tiga siaka)

The Malayan Lascar is probably the most common and widely distributed of the four species in Singapore. It can be observed at parks and gardens like the Southern Ridges, Botanic Gardens although it is mainly spotted in forested areas around the fringes of, and within the nature reserves.

A mating pair of Malayan Lascars

The wings are typically banded with black and orange, with the underside a paler colour. The species can be distinguished from the similar-looking Burmese Lascar by the submarginal spot in space 3, which is wider than the adjacent spots in spaces 2 and 4. It has been bred on the caterpillar host plants Erycibe tomentosa and Bauhinia semibifida.

2. The Burmese Lascar (Lasippa heliodore dorelia)

A Burmese Lascar puddling at a damp footpath

The Burmese Lascar is rarer than its lookalike cousin, the Malayan Lascar. It is a forest-dependent species that does not fly far from the nature reserves of Singapore. It is sometimes observed seen puddling at damp sandy footpaths in the nature reserves. It has been successfully bred on its caterpillar host plants of Rourea minor, Rourea asplenifolia and Cnestis palala.

A mating pair of Burmese Lascars

The Burmese Lascar features the typical orange/black banded appearance of the Lascars, with the underside a paler orange-yellow with dark grey bands. The primary distinguishing characteristic of this species that separates it from the very similar-looking Malayan Lascar is the submarginal spot in space 3, which is barely wider than the adjacent spots in spaces 2 and 4.

3. The Perak Lascar (Pantoporia paraka paraka)

A Perak Lascar perched on a leaf to sunbathe

The Perak Lascar is more frequently encountered in back-mangrove and mangrove habitats where its preferred host plants, Dalbergia rostrata and Dalbergia candenatensis are found. Its third caterpillar host plant, Cnestis palala which it shares with the Burmese Lascar, grows mainly in the forested nature reserves, where the Perak Lascar is sometimes also found. In Singapore, it is often observed in the vicinity of mangrove habitats in Pulau Ubin, Kranji, Sg Buloh Wetlands and Pasir Ris Park.

A Perak Lascar perched on the flower buds of the Singapore Rhododendron

The Perak Lascar has the typical orange/black banded appearance, with the underside a paler colour. The diagnostic identification characteristic of this species are two orange submarginal lines on the forewing above, with one or both bent at space 3. Together with the marginal orange spots that appear like a third thin line, giving the appearance of three orange lines, the Perak Lascar is easy to identify and when it stops to rest, cannot be mistaken for any of the other Lascar species in Singapore.

4. The Common Lascar (Pantoporia hordonia hordonia)

A Common Lascar forages amongst leaf litter

The fourth Lascar found in Singapore is the Common Lascar, which frequents the forested nature reserves in Singapore. Both its caterpillar host plants are forest plants - Archidendron clypearia and Parkia speciosa. The last-named host plant is also called "Petai" and is a bean that is consumed in traditional Malay cuisine.

A Common Lascar puddling at a damp footpath
A Common Lascar showing its marbled undersides

The Common Lascar also has the orange/black banded appearance, but if the underside of this species can be seen, the marbled underside will set it apart from the other three species described above. On the upperside, there is a single thick orange sub-marginal line, with a inner pale grey line.

A possible Broad-Striped Lascar, a species that is very similar to the Common Lascar

However, it is this species that can be easily confused with the Broad-Striped Lascar (Pantoporia sandaka sandaka), which has a very similar appearance except in that the orange sub-marginal line is thicker than the inner pale grey line. In the Common Lascar, the pale grey line is thicker than the orange submarginal line. However, in view of the difficulty of separating them definitively, the existence of Pantoporia sandaka is tentatively held in abeyance until physical specimens or DNA analysis can be made available for validation.

ID Keys to the 4 Lascars

There are two other similar-looking species that were recorded in Singapore by the early authors - The Grey Lined Lascar (Pantoporia dindinga) and the Baby Lascar (Pantoporia aurelia) but these have not been seen in recent years or could have been missed. Hence if any observers and butterfly watchers out there who spot these Lascars, do try to take a good photo of these species, as they may still be extant in Singapore after all!

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Chng CK, Khew SK, Loh MY, Loke PF and Horace Tan