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Official Magazine of the Nature Society (Singapore)
Flying Flowers

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 wings.

Yes, the butterfly was once that worm-like caterpillar! It is one insect that undergoes a complete metamorphosis—changing from egg (ovum) to caterpillar (larva) and changing again from caterpillar to chrysalis (pupa) and finally the adult (imago) emerges—the 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 nature areas.

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!

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Plain Tiger
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 Monarch Butterfly
Food: Caterpillars feed on Asclepias currasavica and Calotropis gigantea, uncommonly grown nowadays.
Habitats: Gardens and parks but now rare because of reduced food sources.

Cycad Blue
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

Blue Pansy
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.

Common Rose
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.

Common Posy
ravindra moorei

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.
Habitat: Forests.

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

Great Mormon
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 white.
Habitat: A species of the forest undergrowth, it is usually found resting on leaves with slightly-opened wings.

Painted Jezebel
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.

Lesser Harlequin
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 surface.
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.

Chocolate Albatross
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 loss.
Habitat: Encountered where there are clusters of Attap Palm.
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