06 February 2016

Butterfly of the Month - February 2016

Butterfly of the Month - February 2016
The Plain Lacewing (Cethosia methypsea methypsea)

We are at the threshold of a new Chinese Lunar Year and today is the 2nd last day of the Year of the Ram/Goat/Sheep. Tomorrow night, many Chinese families will gather for the traditional New Year's Eve Reunion dinner (年夜飯) during which family members from near and far, gather to celebrate the New Year. At the stroke of 12 midnight on Monday 8 Feb 2016, we will welcome the Year of the Fire Monkey.

In Singapore, Chinese New Year's celebration dinners usually start with the traditional "tossing of the raw fish salad" or Yusheng. As to the ongoing debates about the origins of this traditional Chinese New Year staple, I shall leave it to the experts to conclude. However, the practice of everyone standing around a plate of Yusheng and tossing the ingredients whilst uttering auspicious phrases will continue in Singapore and Malaysia.

Class of 1984 Architecture classmates all ready to toss Yusheng and bring in the good luck for the Chinese New Year!

This year, however, we are likely going to see less of the most important ingredient - raw fish in Yusheng. Ironically, after a few cases of food poisoning caused by raw fish contaminated with Group B Streptococcus (GBS), many restaurants are likely to avoid serving fresh water raw fish in their Yusheng this year, replacing it with "safer" alternatives like abalone, scallops or even cooked fish instead.

The global economic gloom seems to have maintained its march into February and appears to be spoiling the Chinese New Year cheer. Local market conditions continue to be weak, with whispers of retrenchments and salary cuts in many companies going around the office grapevine. Reports of a likely hiring freeze amongst companies in Singapore dampened the mood at the end of last year, but more recent surveys indicated a more optimistic outlook for employees in 2016.

On the environmental front, the Land Transport Authority gazetted its much-awaited Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Phase 1 report for the Cross Island MRT line. This MRT line is currently planned to cut through a part of the Central Catchment Nature Reserve, and nature groups and environmentalists are concerned about the impact of such a major engineering construction running through a nature reserve.

Whilst the EIA suggested a number of mitigation measures to alleviate the impact of the preliminary investigation works and eventual construction works in the nature reserve, spokespersons for the nature groups shared their concerns about the long-lasting repercussions to one of Singapore's precious remaining nature reserve forests. The debates are likely to continue and it is hoped that the outcome will not result in a win-lose scenario for the environment.

Speaking of the forested nature reserves, we feature the third Lacewing butterfly species found in Singapore, the Plain Lacewing (Cethosia methypsea methypsea). A forest-dependent species, the Plain Lacewing was first discovered in Singapore some time in the 1990's. A previously-unrecorded species in Singapore's butterfly fauna, this species was absent from the early authors' checklists.

After a few final sporadic sightings in early 2000, the Plain Lacewing mysteriously disappeared and there were no reliable sightings of the species for a period of fourteen years until late 2014, when they suddenly re-appeared. A female was spotted ovipositing on its host plant and its life history finally recorded. The caterpillar host plant, a Passifloraceae vine found relatively commonly in the forested areas, is not uncommon. However, it is curious as to why the species abruptly disappeared for so long and then re-appeared just as suddenly.

The Plain Lacewing continued to be observed in 2015 and 2016, and it is hoped that the species will continue to be extant in Singapore. The host plant and the forest habitats that this species prefers are of critical concern if something were to happen to the Central Catchment Nature Reserves and the native flora is adversely affected in our primary and secondary forests.

The Plain Lacewing looks superficially similar to the other two Cethosia species found in Singapore - the Malay Lacewing (Cethosia hypsea hypsina) and the Leopard Lacewing (Cethosia cyane). On the underside of the male, the Plain Lacewing is likely to be confused with the Leopard Lacewing, with the exception of a much thinner white submarginal line on the hindwing compared to the Leopard Lacewing's thicker band.

The male and female of the Plain Lacewing are generally similar in appearance, whilst the other two species have distinctive characteristics that can separate the male and female easily. On the upperside, the forewing of the Plain Lacewing is black with a white subapical band (broader in the female than in the male) beyond the cell; the basal area is rich orange-red for the male and reddish brown for the female.

On the underside, the wings are orange-red with reddish areas confined to the basal half with white fasciae adorned with black spots. The forewing cell has several black-edged, pale blue transverse stripes. The wing borders are dark brown and deeply indented with lace-like pattern of white markings. The hindwing has a narrow white submarginal band which distinguishes it from the other two related species (absent in the Malay Lacewing, and much thicker in the Leopard Lacewing).

The males have a slightly deeper orange-red colour when in flight, compared to the Malay and Leopard Lacewings. It appears to be a faster flyer than the other two, and at times, seem to fly for long periods of time without resting. In the morning hours, the Plain Lacewing can be observed to feed on flowering plants, whilst later in the day, it can be encountered resting on the top surfaces of leaves in the shady forest understorey.

And so, with this colourful Lacewing, we look forward to the rest of 2016 and the Year of the Fire Monkey with optimism. As we celebrate Chinese New Year over the next couple of weeks, all of us at ButterflyCircle would like to take this opportunity to wish all our Chinese friends and readers a....

"Gong Xi Fa Cai and a
Happy & Prosperous Chinese New Year!"

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Sunny Chir, Chng CK, Federick Ho, Khew SK, Koh CH, Loke PF, Nelson Ong and Horace Tan

30 January 2016

Red for Prosperity

Red for Prosperity!
Red Butterflies in Singapore

A Common Red Flash (Rapala iarbus iarbus) perches on a lallang blade

In about a week's time, Chinese communities from all over the world will celebrate the Spring Festival or Chunjie 春节 or Chinese Lunar New Year. During this period of festivities, red is a favourite colour in most Chinese households and businesses. From new red clothes to red banners to red packets, it is a traditional Chinese belief that red is auspicious. Everyone is encouraged to put a little bit of red in their lives to ensure that they reap some of the prosperity that comes with the New Year.

Monkey with Peach © freepik.com

This year, 2016, we will welcome the Red Fire Monkey on 8 Feb. The Monkey is the ninth sign in Chinese astrology, after the goat, and followed by the rooster. The number “9” is associated with ambition, activity, smartness, mischief and adventure. The sheep/ram/goat of 2015 will be making its exit by midnight on 7 Feb, as we herald the new Year of the Monkey.

A Malayan Plum Judy (Abisara saturata kausambioides) feeding on moisture on a leaf surface

The colour red has a variety of associations in different cultures across religions, nationalities and races. In prehistoric cave paintings, red pigments were extracted from iron oxide or red ochre to depict the then "civilised" world's view of their daily life. Prehistoric man's "blog" of sorts, where he documented on the walls of his cave, anything from a successful hunt to his adventures across unknown lands.

A red door in Chinese architecture.  Imperial Palace Complex, Beijing, China

In ancient China, red played an important role in the culture of Imperial China. In Chinese philosophy, red represented fire, one of the five elements. During the Zhou, Han, Jin, Song and Ming Dynasties, red was considered a noble colour, and it was featured in all court ceremonies, from coronations to sacrificial offerings, and weddings. Red was featured prominently in architecture, and used liberally on walls of buildings, columns and beams and entrance portals. The gates of imperial palaces were usually painted red.

The red cross of a soldier of the Crusades

The Roman Empire celebrated red as a colour of courage and blood. Roman soldiers wore red tunics, whilst generals often sported large red cloaks. The Emperor Charlemagne painted his palace red and wore red shoes as symbol of his authority. In Christianity it represented the blood of Christ and the Christian martyrs; in 1295 it became the colour worn by Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church.

Red door detail.  Imperial Palace Complex, Beijing, China

Red is the colour of extremes. It is often used to symbolise courage, passion, seduction, violence, danger, anger, auspiciousness, celebration, good luck, joy and adventure. However, red is often associated with having a dark side, particularly in Christian theology. It was associated with sexual passion, anger, sin, and the devil (which is often portrayed graphically as a horned being with a tail and totally red in colour). And whenever someone mentioned a "red light district" in a city, it is a part of the city that few people would want to openly associate with.

Red is a colour that is most often used on national flags! Did you know that over 77% of the world's national flags contain the colour red? Of the 192 flags of the independent countries of the world, 148 feature the colour red on their flags, including Singapore's which features the colours red and white.

What about our butterflies then? In Singapore, we have a number of species of butterflies that are predominantly red in colour. Their "redness" ranges from a bright red to a deep maroon red. Let us take a look at some of these red butterflies that can be found here in Singapore.

Burgundy red Commander (Moduza procris milonia)

The largest predominantly red butterfly is the Commander (Moduza procris milonia). This Nympalidae butterfly features a deep maroon red on the upperside of its wings with a white macular band across both wings. The species is relatively common and is widespread in distribution from the nature reserves to urban parks and gardens. The Lacewings, of which there are three species in Singapore, also have reds on their wings, but they do appear to be more deep-orange rather than predominantly red and are hence excluded from this list of red butterflies.

A Spotted Judy (Abisara geza niya) perches on a fern

The next group that features a number of red butterflies are from the subfamily Riodinidae. Also known as "Metalmarks", this group of butterflies feature deep red butterflies. Some species are adorned with blue or silvery spots and marks. Most are shy forest butterflies that prefer the shaded understorey of the forested areas in Singapore.

Top : Malayan Plum Judy (Abisara saturata kausambioides) Middle : Harlequin (Taxila haquinus haquinus) Bottom : Lesser Harlequin (Laxita thuisto thuisto)

Amongst the deep red Riodinidae that are found in Singapore are the Malayan Plum Judy (Abisara saturata kausambioides) and the Spotted Judy (Abisara geza niya). Two other members of the family also appear red, but marked with silver or bluish spots. These are the Harlequin (Taxila haquinus haquinus) and the Lesser Harlequin (Laxita thuisto thuisto). Both are rare butterflies, in particular the Harlequin where it is known from only a single location on Singapore island.

Top : Cornelian (Deudorix epijarbas cinnabarus) Bottom : A rather worn-out Eliot's Cornelian (Deudorix elioti)

The remaining red-coloured butterflies found in Singapore are small and zippy butterflies from the subfamily Theclinae. Two species from the genus Deudorix are the Cornelian (Deudorix epijarbas cinnabarus) and the Eliot's Cornelian (Deudorix elioti) both of which feature red uppersides with thick black borders. Interestingly, Cornelian (sometimes spelt Carnelian) is a brownish-red mineral which is commonly used as a semi-precious gemstone.

The final group of red butterflies belong to the genus Rapala often referred to as the "Flashes" for their strong rapid flight. The most often spotted and prominently red species is the Common Red Flash (Rapala iarbus iarbus). This species tends to open its wings to sunbathe, showing off its red uppersides more often than its closely-related cousins.

Upperside of a newly eclosed Scarlet Flash (Rapala dieneces dieneces)

Of the other Flash species, the males of the Scarlet Flash (Rapala dieneces dieneces), the Suffused Flash (Rapala suffusa barthema) and the Copper Flash (Rapala pheretima sequeira) also sport reddish uppersides. Although not very rare, these species are not often observed to show off their uppersides of the wings very frequently, and hence field shots of these butterflies depicting their uppersides are fairly rare.

© freepik.com

And so we now know a little more about our red butterflies in Singapore, and whether you choose to display a bit more red in your life this coming Chinese New Year for prosperity and good luck, here's wishing a Happy Chinese New Year and a Gong Xi Fa Cai to all our readers near and far! And we hope that the year of the Fire Monkey will bring good luck, health and prosperity to you in 2016!

Text by Khew SK : Photos by James Chia, Sunny Chir, Khew SK, Horace Tan and Bene Tay.

23 January 2016

Larval Host Plant for Butterflies: Crown Flower

Butterflies' Larval Host Plants #6
Crown Flower (Calotropis gigantea)

This 6th instalment of our Butterflies' Larval Host Plants series features the Crown Flower (Calotropis gigantea), a species from the Apocynaceae family (commonly known as the dogbane family) which has many members possessing the ability to exude milky latex/sap. Many of these plants are known to be poisonous.

Leaves of the Crown Flower.

The Crown Flower is native to South Asia, Southeast Asia, China and tropical Asia. In Singapore, it is typically cultivated in gardens to attract a variety of insects. Wild specimens of the Crown flower are rarely seen. All plant parts of the Crown Flower have an abundance of milky latex, and will "bleed" easily when the plant part is cut or scratched. It is considered a poisonous plant as its milky sap has been found to cause a reversible vision loss and skin irritation, and even death when ingested. Even so, the Crown Flower is also a traditional medicinal plant and extracts from various plant parts have been used in treatment of many conditions such as syphilis, sores, ulcers and boils etc.

Plant Biodata :
Family : Apocynaceae
Genus : Calotropis
Species : gigantea
Synonyms : Asclepias gigantea
Country/Region of Origin : Southeast/South Asia, China and tropical Afica
English Common Names : Giant Milkweed
Other Local Names :  Remiga, Madar, Kapal-kapal, 牛角瓜
Larval Host for Butterfly Species: Danaus chrysippus chrysippus (Plain Tiger).

Crown Flower plants found in parks in Singapore, showing the upright stem and the large, oval-shaped leaves.

The Crown Flower is a medium to large evergreen shrub, growing up to a height of 3-4m. The leaves are simple, opposite, fleshy, obovate in shape. Young leaves are densely woolly, giving a whitish appearance.

A view showing the simple and opposite arrangement of leaves of the Crown Flower.

A pair of very young leaves showing the woolly appearance.

The top view of another pair of more mature leaves which still have the woolly appearance on the upperside.

Fully grown leaves are large and can be 10-20cm in length, 6-12cm in width. The upperside is light green and the underside whitish green. The leaf base is deeply heart-shaped, and the petiole is relatively short.

The underside of a mature leaf.

The upperside of a mature leaf.

Flowers of the Crown Flower occur in axiliary clusters. Each flower is about 3-4cm wide, white or pale lilac-blue. Each has five pointed petals and a small "crown" rising from the center. These flowers attract a variety of insects such as bees and butterflies which act as pollinators in the reproduction process. In some countries, the flowers are used in floral arrangements due to their long-lasting property.

A cluster of white flower buds.

A cluster of the lilac flower buds.

A cluster of flowers, white variety.

A cluster of flowers, lilac variety.

Each fruit of the Crown Flower is a large, green inflated pod, curved on one side and 6 to 10cm in length. When mature, it splits open to expose the many seeds packed within. Each brown seed is flattened and broad, with a tuft of whitish hair 2 to 3cm long.

A fruit of the Crown Flower.

A fruit of the Crown Flower, split to reveal the brown seeds.

Seeds of the Crown Flower next to the mature fruit, waiting for the next breeze to take them along.

Another view of the same group of exposed seeds.

In Singapore, the Crown Flower also serves as the larval host plant for one butterfly species: Danaus chrysippus chrysippus (Plain Tiger), a species in the Danainae subfamily of Nymphalidae.

A Plain Tiger taking nectar from the flowers of the Snakeweed.

An egg of the Plain Tiger laid on the underside of a leaf of the Crown Flower.

Eggs of the Plan Tiger is laid singly on the underside of a leaf of the Crown Flower. Due to the large size of the leaf, at times more than one egg can be found laid on the same leaf. The life cycle of the Plain Tiger is fast paced throughout. The Plain Tiger caterpillars feed on the lamina of the leaf of the Crown Flower. They stay on the underside of the leaf when eating and resting between feeds. In the earlier instars, the caterpillar has the habit of marking out a circular patch on the leaf, before devouring the patch. The milky sap excreted in the process appears to have no effect on the caterpillar.

A early instar caterpillar of the Plain Tiger resting within its circular patch of territory.

Another early instar caterpillar part way through devouring the circular patch of lamina.

In later instars, the caterpillar will simply eat through the lamina away from the leaf margin or eat along it.

A pair of late instar caterpillars of the Plain Tiger feeding on the underside of the same leaf.

A final instar found resting on the underside of a leaf in an Eco garden.

Close-up view of the same caterpillar.

Typically, the Plain Tiger caterpillar will pupate on the underside of a leaf of the Crown Flower. The pupation site is usually on the raised mid-rib of the leaf.

A pupa of the Plain Tiger found in an Eco garden, possibly parasited.

An empty pupal case of the Plain Tiger on the underside of a leaf of the Crown Flower, indicating that another adult has made it.

A walk in a garden where the Crown Flower is planted will usually come with a sight of the Plain Tiger butterflies fluttering around in the vicinity. If this is the case, it will be rewarding to examine the leaves for any foliage damage and the presence of the beautifully coloured caterpillars of the Plain Tiger.

Text and Photos by Horace Tan.