24 July 2009

Romancing the Pearl of the Orient

Romancing the Pearl of the Orient -

A Study Trip to Penang

Last weekend I joined a team of staff from NParks on a study trip to Penang. The team, comprising staff from various Divisions in NParks, went on a fact-finding mission to learn more about setting up a butterfly farm as well as visiting several specialised gardens and horticultural sites to gather new ideas for their respective areas of work and for a possible future facility under NParks to enhance the conservation of butterflies and biodiversity in Singapore.

The team of nine set off from Changi Airport early on Thursday morning, and arrived at Penang just after 9:30am. We headed straight for the Penang Butterfly Farm at Teluk Bahang in a mini bus kindly sent to pick us up. Seven of us reached the Butterfly Farm (why seven?? Two members were, erm... indisposed, but that's another story for another time). We met David Goh, Joseph Goh, BT Chin and Kuennie Lee who showed us around the flight enclosure and features of the 1,500 sqm facility which features, on average, about 4,000 butterflies from 100 species.

Joseph Goh and BT Chin sharing some pointers with the NParks team

As it was nearing lunch time, David and Joseph hosted the Singapore entourage at the newly opened Papilio cafe within the flight enclosure. After a yummy meal, and lots of butterfly talk, the team moved off to the back-of-house facilities where the breeding cages and open areas where the early stages of the species featured in the flight enclosure were 'farmed'. It was eye-opening to know that the breeding facilities was about five times the size of the flight enclosure, and spread over three other sites.

At one of the sites, were durian trees (yes, we Malaysians and Singaporeans can't resist talking about the King of Fruits) laden with lots of durians. We saw the various types of breeding cages, from small containers and meshed boxes to entire enclosures where the gravid female butterflies oviposited on trellises and pots of their host plants.

Amongst the species we saw, were the Rajah Brooke's Birdwing, Batik Lacewing, Cruiser, Archduke, Clipper, Autumn Leaf, Tree Nymph and a whole host of medium to large butterflies featured at the main flight enclosure.

Yes, its durians again...

We ended the tour of the breeding facilities with a generous helping of some of the tastiest durians that I've had this season. Thanks to David Goh, we got really high quality durians at the roadside stall just opposite the Penang Butterfly Farm. After having our fill of durians, we did a quick tour of the flight cage again, and out through the museum displays and antique shop.

The team thanked David, Joseph and their staff, for their fantastic Malaysian hospitality and generous sharing of knowledge and information about the Penang Butterfly Farm's operations. At around 4:30pm, we got into our taxis and headed back to the Copthorne Orchid, happy and burpified with durians on our breath.

A group shot for the pleasant memories of our visit
Back Row : L-R : Keneric, Joseph, Khew, Wai Sung, Gary & Boon Tat
Front Row : L-R : David, Kartini, Khee Li, Meena & Kuennie

After checking in and a quick freshening up, the team, finally nine of us, (inclusive of our two lost sheep), checked out the night scene at the Gurney Plaza. After a sumptuous dinner, it was a quick round of shopping and then a movie for the younger ones in the team.

The next day, we were up early and in our chartered mini-bus, we headed for the Penang Botanic Gardens. More popularly known to Penangites as the "Waterfall Gardens", the Penang Botanic Gardens was established by the British way back in 1884 from an old quarry site. Covering about 35Ha at the main gardens, the PBG is a popular spot with locals and visitors alike. The place was crowded, even though we visited on a Friday morning, with joggers, tourists and school children engaging in various outdoor activities and out for a morning exercise.

An interesting morning at the Penang Botanic Gardens

The team checked out various plants and shrubs and the feature collections at the PBG. After about 2 hours, we left the PBG and headed off to Teluk Bahang again, this time to the Tropical Spice Garden. The Tropical Spice Garden first opened its doors to the public in November 2003, as an ambitious, yet holistic eco-tourism project showcasing over 500 varieties of exotic fauna and flora (with an emphasis on spices), spread over 8 acres of secondary jungle.

Our guide showing the team some interesting spices

The Spice Garden features over 500 varieties of tropical flora specially selected from all over the world. Divided into 3 designated trails, Jungle Trail, Ornamental Trail and Spice Trail landscaped on natural jungle terrain, each trail offers sufficient interest for a 20-45 minute walk. Our team had a friendly guide to take us around, carefully explaining the numerous spices and herbs and the uses in cooking, medicine and so on.

As we could hear several growling tummies as lunch hour approached, the team hopped on to our chartered mini-bus and headed to the Tropical Fruit Farm. Penang's Tropical Fruit Farm is situated about 800ft above sea level on the hilly terrain of Teluk Bahang in Penang is an ideal location for cultivating many types of tropical and sub-tropical fruit trees. The orchard covers 25 acres and it was developed back in 1993 to conserve the rare and exotic fruit trees.

Fruits for lunch?

As we were running short of time, we skipped the fruit farm visit, and opted to have a lunch of fruits (aren't we healthy!) at the main visitor centre. After downing two platters of delicious local fruits (surprisingly, no durians!) the team got back on the bus and headed off to the Bayan Lepas International Airport, and to bid adios to the Pearl of the Orient, and a 'fruitful' study trip of two days.

Gary still dreaming of his medium-rare T-bone steak, instead of fruits and coconuts for lunch...

Some butterflies shot during our Penang Trip

Top to Bottom : Tufted Jungle King, Wanderer, Forest White, Chocolate Soldier, Koh-I-Noor and Indian Yellow Nawab

Text and Photos by Khew SK

17 July 2009

Life History of the Sky Blue

Life History of the Sky Blue (Jamides caeruleus caeruleus)

Butterfly Biodata:
Genus: Jamides Hübner , 1819
Species: caeruleus H. Druce, 1873
Sub-species: caeruleus H. Druce, 1873
Wingspan of Adult Butterfly: 30mm
Caterpillar Local Host Plants:
Saraca cauliflora (Leguminosae, common name: Yellow Saraca)

Physical Description of Adult Butterfly:
The Sky Blue is a member of the elpis subgroup, which is characterized by the post-discal band on the forewing beneath being completely dislocated at vein 3. Beneath, on the hindwing, the second white stria from the base in space 7 is either in line with the third stria from the base in the cell, or at least nearer to this stria than to the second cell stria. Above, the male is sky blue, with forewing border increasing to about 1.0mm at the apex, and with marginal spots absent from the hindwing. The female has blue deeper and more shining than the other species of the group. Each hindwing features a large black-centred orange-crowned tornal spot, submarginal orange markings along veins 1b and 4; and a white-tipped filamentous tail at the end of vein 2.

A male Sky Blue perching on a leaf in an urban garden.

The same male Sky Blue giving us a glimpse of its sky-blue upperside.

Field Observations of Butterfly Behaviour:
This species is rarely encountered in Singapore. There were only a handful of sightings of lone specimens in the nature reserves until the discovery of a small colony in an urban garrden in the early part of this year. At this site, the males were observed to be flying around in sunny weather, and puddling on wet ground. A number of females were also busy with their egg-laying tasks on the Saraca flowers which were blooming at that time.

Early Stages:
The local host plant, Saraca cauliflora (Yellow Saraca) is a small to medium-sized tree with pinnate leaves in 4-6 pairs. The flowers are orange-yellow in large clusters on trunk or branches. Seed pods are large, flat and purple. Yellow Saraca can be found in many parts of Singapore such as urban parks, roadsides as well as the nature reserves. The early stages of the Sky Blue feed on various parts of the flowers.

Yellow Saraca: cauliflorous flowers (left); pinnate leaves and seed pod (right).

A mother Sky Blue laying her eggs within a cluster of Yellow Saraca flowers.

Eggs of Sky Blue are laid in the flower clusters of the Yellow Saraca, typically singly on flower parts such as the petal, sepal and pedicel . The egg is disc-like (about 0.6-0.7mm in diameter) with a depressed micropylar, and light green in colour. The surface is covered with a reticulated pattern of intersecting ridges.

Left: egg laid on petal; Right: empty egg shell.

The collected eggs took 2-2.5 days to hatch. The young caterpillar emerges after nibbling away sufficiently large portion of the egg shell. Measured at a length of about 0.9mm, its pale yellow body is cylindrical in shape, sporting long fine setae (hairs) and a dark head capsule. A black prothoracic shield is prominently featured.

A newly hatched caterpillar of the Sky Blue, length: 0.9-1.0mm.

The newly hatched grazes on the surface of flower petals or bores into a flower bud for the goodies within. Later instar caterpillars also eat the pedicel of the flowers. As it feeds and grows, it gradually takes on a yellowish brown coloration with a strong pinkish tinge.

1st instar caterpillars. Top: late in this stage, length: 2.5mm.
Bottom: in dormant mode prior to moult, length: 2mm.

After about 1-1.5 days of growth and reaching a length of about 2.5mm, the caterpillar has its body shortened while lying in a dormant stage to prepare for its moult to the next instar. The moult eventually takes place after 0.5-0.75 day in the dormant stage. The 2nd instar caterpillar is yellowish brown with very strong hint of pink and red. The body surface appears to be covered with tiny reddish spots, and fine setae. The prothoracic shield is black in colour.

2nd instar caterpillars. Lengths: 2mm (top); 3.5mm (bottom).

The 2nd instar caterpillar reaches a length of about 3.5mm, and after about 2-3 days in this stage, it moults again. The 3rd instar caterpillar has numerous short and fine body setae. There are rather faint dorsal and lateral markings on the reddish brown body. Both the dorsal nectary organ (on the 7th abdominal segment) and tentacular organs (on the 8th abdominal segment) are now easily discernible.
The 3rd instar takes 2.0-2.5 days to complete with the body length reaching about 6.0mm.

Two views of a 3rd instar caterpillar, late in this stage, length: 6mm.

Late 2nd and late 3rd instar caterpillars, both in shortened and dormant stage prior to their moults.

Moulting to the 4th instar.

The 4th (and final) instar caterpillar is similar in appearance to the 3rd instar caterpillar. Overall, the caterpillar has taken on a darker shade of reddish brown. With increased size and greater contrast in the markings around them, the nectary organs now are now very prominent. Contrasting markings with sinusoidal outlines run dorsally from the prothoracic segment to the dorsal nectary organ.

4th instar caterpillar feeding on Yellow Saraca flowers.
Top: middle-aged, length: 9.5mm.
Bottom: late in this stage, length: 12mm.

Nectary organs and prothoracic shield of a 4th instar Sky Blue caterpillar.

After 4-5 days of growth and reaching a maximum length of around 12mm in the final instar, the body of the caterpillar gradually shrinks, and finally takes on a dark purplish brown coloration. All bred specimens chose to enter their pre-pupatory phase in tight pockets of space within leaf debris. At the chosen spot, the caterpillar readies itself for pupation by spinning a silk girdle and a silk pad. The caterpillar secures itself to the silk pad via claspers on its posterior end.

Two views of an immobile pre-pupatory larva of the Sky Blue.
The silk girdle can be easily seen.

Pupation event of a Sky Blue caterpillar.

Pupation takes place after one day of the pre-pupal stage. The pupa has the typical lycaenid shape. It is beige in base color with a fair number of brown and black specks. The pupa has a length of about 9mm.

Two views of a pupa of the Sky Blue, length: 9.2mm

Five days later, the pupa becomes darkened in color signaling the imminent emergence of the adult. The markings on the upperside of the forewing become visible through the pupal skin, and it is now possible to tell the gender of the soon-to-emerge adult. The next day the adult butterfly emerges from the mature pupa

Two views of a mature pupa of a female Sky Blue.

A newly eclosed female Sky Blue

  • The Butterflies of The Malay Peninsula, A.S. Corbet and H.M. Pendlebury, 4th Edition, The Malayan Nature Society.
  • Butterflies of Thailand, Pisuth Ek-Amnuay, 1st Edition, 2006

Text and Photos by Horace Tan

12 July 2009

Butterfly of the Month - July 2009

Butterfly of the Month - July 2009
The Leopard (Phalanta phalantha phalantha)

This month, we feature a rather common urban butterfly that is "resident" whenever the characteristic Weeping Willow tree (Salix babylonica) is cultivated. The host plant is a sculptural tree that is a favourite with landscape architects, gardeners and tree lovers for its dramatic appearance and rounded, weeping shape.. The Weeping Willow's grace comes from its sweeping, low branches that droop to create its familiar “falling” canopy.

The month of July normally sees hot and humid conditions as the full effect of summer is felt around the northern hemisphere. However, it is still strangely wet for July as far as Singapore is concerned, with many days of rain over the past few weeks. But in these hot months, and the prospects of the El Nino effect hitting countries around the world, rain is always welcomed. The imminent haze from the slash and burn habits of neighbouring countries has also been somewhat lessened by the rains.

The Leopard's wings are coloured a bright cheery orange and are ornamented with black spots and streaks. The underside is paler, with the spots and streaks less defined. The submarginal borders of both wings have a light violet sheen as do the forewings' cell area.

The species is common in urban areas where its host plant is found. Where the effect from pesticides are minimised, the butterfly can always be found fluttering around the leaves of the Weeping Willow in parks and gardens. The Leopard has a rather restless flight, always on the move as it flutters from flower to flower. Rarely has it been observed with its wings opened flat to sunbathe, or stopping to rest with its wings folded upright. It's a busy butterfly - always moving and fluttering, as if there was a lot of work and feeding to do all the time.

A mating pair of Leopards

Being skittish, it is not the easiest of butterflies to photography, even though it is common. Perhaps the cool early morning hours and the later part of the evening would be the best time to try to catch this butterfly at rest where it will be more cooperative for a shot.

Males and females look very similar, and around the host plant, often several of them can be found fluttering and frolicking amongst the long drooping leaves of the Weeping Willow. The caterpillars are well camouflaged, but the pupa bears very attractive red outlined silvery spots. The life history as recorded is rather short - around 16-18 days in total from egg to eclosion.

The Leopard is certainly one of the urban butterflies that will be appreciated for its beauty and rich cheery orange colour, and a species that should be helped to survive in our urban parks and gardens through judicious horticultural planting and the minimisation of the use of pesticides.

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Anthony Wong, Bobby Mun, Federick Ho, Horace Tan, Tan CP & Khew SK ; Life History by Soon Chye