Appreciating the beautiful butterflies of Singapore
... and understanding that they too have 'their place' in nature's
wondrous web of life, of which we humans are a part. An article compiled
by Steven Neo, Betty L Khoo and
Andrew Tay. All Photos by Steven Neo
unless otherwise stated.
The sight of butterflies flitting and feeding from flower to flower
is something that urban Singaporeans can still appreciate in our parks,
the Botanic Gardens and nature reserves. But probably few make the
connection between the worm-like fat caterpillar that chews up the
leaves of plants and the gorgeous butterfly with its exquisitely delicate
Yes, the butterfly was once that worm-like caterpillar! It is one
insect that undergoes a complete metamorphosischanging from
egg (ovum) to caterpillar (larva) and changing again from caterpillar
to chrysalis (pupa) and finally the adult (imago) emergesthe
glorious butterfly. The appearance and habits of the insect in each
of these stages is completely different.
Those who have watched a butterfly emerge from its chrysalis say it's
a breathtaking sight. Just before the emergence of the adult, the
pupa case becomes transparent to reveal the butterfly within. When
the time comes for the butterfly to emerge, it forces its body fluid
into its head and thorax, causing them to swell and split the pupa
case. The adult then gradually wriggles out, head first.
The butterfly is revealed in all its glory but its wings are still
soft, damp and folded. Gradually, as fluid is pumped into the wing
veins, the wings then unfold and begin to dry. The butterfly begins
to test its wings, opening and closing them several times before making
its maiden flight. Where would it go? This depends on where it hatched,
its food source and its habitat.
Butterflies are insects and they belong to a distinctive order known
as Lepidoptera. Their closest relative is the moth (which is generally
a duller creature) but bees, beetles and wasps are also their insect
relatives. And they have features similar to these other insects.
Butterflies, like all other insects, plants and animals, are important
in the survival of all living things as they are part of the complex
food web. There is now a small but growing number of people who are
aware of the need to conserve all flora and fauna, not only for the
preservation of species numbers, but for the survival of the human
species too. Which brings us back to food sources and natural habitats
of butterflies which, like it is for all other creatures in urbanised
Singapore, has rapidly dwindled.
But there is one consolation. Some butterfly species have adapted
well to the trees and shrubs found in our parks and even beside our
roads. One butterfly, most commonly seen weaving among wayside trees
is the Painted Jezebel (Delias hyparete metarete). It is able
to live in this urban greenery because it breeds on the semi-parasitic
Loranthus plant, found on the branches of our wayside trees.
But most butterfly species are still found in our forest reserves.
This is because the forests have still got the majority of plant species
that butterflies depend on for food and for breeding. Even so, many
species have been lost to rapid development that have encroached on
Butterfly watchers should take note that butterflies found in the
forests are generally of two types; sun-loving forms found among tree
tops or clearings and ground and bottom-inhabiting forms that feed
on rotting fruit or other matter. Butterflies seen in habitats such
as parks, gardens, scrubland and wooded areas (the latter two now
increasingly scarce), are those that love bright sunlight and are
most active during midday. Abandoned farmland with a mixed growth
of low shrubs (still found on Pulau Ubin), attract many of these butterflies.
Mangrove swamps are home to several unique species but with the paltry
pockets of swamp left, these species are hardly to be found. An exception
is the King Crow (Euploea phaenareta castelnaui) which has
adapted to breeding on the introduced Pong Pong Tree (Cerbera odollam).
The two stages, caterpillar and adult, feed on different things, thus
reducing competition for food among their own kind. The most common
food for adult butterflies is nectar from flowers but they also feed
on other things. Many forest butterflies feed on rotting fruits while
some also feast on sweet sap. A few butterfly species use their proboscis
to suck up fluid from animal dung, urine, sweat and even dead animals.
Naturally it is not just loss of habitats that threatens the butterfly,
but also its many predators; and to survive from egg to adult requires
many strategies, some highly sophisticated! One strategy is camouflage
while another is mimicry. Some non-poisonous species will mimic the
appearance and even flight style of a poisonous one that is avoided
by its predators.
Butterfly lovers say that they appreciate this unique insect not merely
for its exquisite form and colours but also for its graceful motions
and its fine art of surviving!
So, for those who have only admired the butterfly that has been caught,
killed, pinned and framed, know that the real thing is many more times
more wondrous. Here are some butterflies caught only on camera!
to Issue contents
Danaus chrysippus chrysippus
A very beautiful, graceful and slow-flying butterfly. The male has
an extra brand on its hindwing. Closely-related to the famous migratory
Food: Caterpillars feed on Asclepias
currasavica and Calotropis gigantea, uncommonly grown nowadays.
Habitats: Gardens and parks but now rare
because of reduced food sources.
Chilades pandava pandava
Both sexes have filamentous tails on their hindwings and these are
easily mistaken for feelers. The caterpillar is attended by ants in
a unique symbiotic relationship.
Food: Caterpillars feed on the young
leaves of the ornamental Cycas revoluta.
Habitat: Gardens and parks.
Photo by Laurence Leong
Junonia orithya wallacei
One of the prettiest of the Pansies, the female does not have the
brilliant cobalt blue on the hindwings. Both sexes have orange-red
eye-spots. It is a sun-loving butterfly with a graceful, gliding flight.
Habitat: Open grassland areas.
Pachliopta aristolochiae asteris
The Common Rose is an uncommonly encountered, endangered insect in
Singapore. It has a slow flight and exhibits warning coloration, informing
insectivores that it is distasteful. The female of its relative, the
Common Mormon, mimics this species in colour and flight.
Food: The caterpillar feeds on Aristolochia,
an uncommon forest vine.
Habitat: Forest and parks. Localised,
only found in some of these areas.
In the forest, this eye-catching butterfly loves to sunbathe where
breaks in the canopy allow sunlight to stream down. It has a swift,
darting flight unlike other long-tailed members within the some family.
Vindula dejone erotella
The Nymphalid family shows great variation in size, habit and colour.
The Cruiser is one of the larger species found in this group. In this
picture, it is feeding on fluid from a dead snake.
Food: The horned caterpillars feed on
Adenia, a plant of the passionfruit family. Adults are attracted
to Lantana blossoms.
Habitat: Forest edge.
Photo by Laurence Leong
Papilio memnon agenor
The male is outstandingly large, has black wings with fine blue dusting.
The female is polymorphic and there are no less than six forms, though
only form esperi, characterised by a white forewing tip, is encountered
these days. Females mimic other poisonous species to fool predators.
Food: Caterpillars feed on leaves of
Pomelo and other citrus plants.
Habitat: Farms, villages, wherever pomelo
is grown. As these areas have been cleared, this butterfly is now
a rare sight.
Abisara geza niya
The male is a deep crimson brown with a fainter white patch on its
forewing than the female which has a narrower and clearer band of
Habitat: A species of the forest undergrowth,
it is usually found resting on leaves with slightly-opened wings.
Delias hyparete metarete
The bright colours of this butterfly advertises its unpleasant taste
to would-be predators. The male is differentiated from the female
by having less black on its wings.
Food: Caterpillars feed on the Loranthus
plant which grows semi-parasitically on roadside trees.
Habitat: Forests and urban areas, normally
seen flying high in the tree tops.
Laxita thuisto thuisto
Strikingly-coloured, this butterfly is fond of feeding on bird droppings
deposited on plants growing on the forest floor. The male differs
from the reddish-brown female by having only black on its top wing
Habitat: Forest undergrowth.
Tailed Green Jay
Graphium agamemnon Agamemnon
A fast-flying butterfly, its upper wings are beautifully speckled
with apple-green spots on black.
Food: Caterpillars feed on leaves of
custard apple, soursop and chempaka kuning. Adults feed on lantana,
its favourite flower.
Habitat: Forest fringes and wooded areas.
Appias lyncida vasava
This is a fast-flying butterfly of the Pierid family. Difficult to
identify in flight, but when it comes to rest, occasionally, on a
small tree or shrub, it can be easily identified by the broad chocolate
band on its underside. Appears to be a seasonal butterfly.
Habitat: Forest fringes.
Elymnias penanga penanga
Although similar in appearance to the Common Palmfly, the male of
this species con easily be distinguished by a broad wide band across
its forewing. This butterfly is no longer seen on mainland Singapore
and found only on the offshore island of Pulau Ubin because of habitat
Habitat: Encountered where there are
clusters of Attap Palm.