08 May 2009

Life History of the Tailed Jay

Life History of the Tailed Jay (Graphium agamemnon agamemnon)

Butterfly Biodata:
Genus: Graphium Scopoli, 1777
Species: agamemnon
Linnaeus, 1758
Subspecies: agamemnon
Linnaeus, 1758
Wingspan of Adult Butterfly: 70mm
Local Caterpillar Host Plants: Annona muricata (Annonaceae, common name: Soursop), Michelia alba (Magnoliaceae, common name: White Champaca), Annona cherimola (Annonaceae), Polyathia longifolia var. pendula (Annonaceae, common name: Ashoka Tree), and two plants (to be identified) found in Central Catchment Reserve.

Physical Description of Adult Butterfly:
As with most Graphium species, the wings are produced at the forewing apex and hindwing tornus and the inner margin of the hindwing bends inwards. Above, the Tailed Jay has apple-green spots of various sizes on a black background. Underneath, the same green spotting can be found against a purple-brown background, and additional red spots are featured on the hindwing. Each hindwing has a short tail at vein 4, longer in the female than in the male.

The upperside view of a Tailed Jay perching on a flower.

A female Tailed Jay visiting flowers at the fringe of the nature reserve.

A male Tailed Jay puddling on a wet ground in the nature reserve.

A male Tailed Jay perching on a branch in the cool morning air.

Field Observations of Butterfly Behaviour:
The swift-flying adults are not uncommon, and can be observed regularly in both nature reserves and urban parks. The adults are often sighted visiting flowers such as ixora or lantana blossom. The males of this species can be found feeding on roadside seepages or urine-tainted sand.

Early Stages:
The early stages of the Tailed Jay feed on young leaves of several plants in the Annonaceae family. One recently recorded local plant is Polyathia longifolia var. pendula (Ashoka Tree). There are also two other yet-to-be-identified host plants in the nature reserves. Eggs and early stages of the Tailed Jay are typically found on saplings of the host plants at low heights.

Host plant : Ashoka Tree. Left: far view of one tall tree (growing in a housing estate);
right: close-up on young leaves.

Un-identified local host plant #1, commonly found in the Central Catchment Nature Reserve.

Un-identified local host plant #2, leaves are covered with hair.

The eggs of the Tailed Jay are laid on young leaves of a sapling. The spherical egg is creamy white with a diameter of about 1.1mm.

Left: fresh egg; right: mature egg. Diameter: 1.1mm

A time-lapse hatching sequence of a Tailed Jay caterpillar

The egg takes 3 days to hatch, and the newly hatched has a body length of about 2.7mm. Typically, the entire egg shell is consumed by the newly hatched as its first meal. The body is initially pale yellowish brown but turning dark brown hours later. There are rather broad and white dorsal patches on thoracic segments and the posterior abdominal segments. A pair of yellowish brown lateral spines can be found on each of the three thoracic segments, and another pair at the anal segment. The body also features rows of short dorsal-lateral tubercles with long setae. Between feeds, the Tailed Jay caterpillar of all instars rests on the upper leaf surface, usually alongside the midrib.

Two views of a newly hatched Tailed Jay caterpillar.
Almost done with the egg shell in top view. Length: 2.7mm

Two views of a 1st instar caterpillar, several hours old, length: 3mm

After about three days of feeding on young and tender leaves, the 1st instar caterpillar grows to a length of about 6mm. Now the body looks pumped up, and assumes a yellowish brown coloration. The white dorsal patches on thoracic segments have faded away by this time. The moult to the 2nd instar takes place after a period of inactivity.

1st instar caterpillar, late in this stage, length: 6mm.

In the 2nd instar caterpillar, the thoracic segments are much enlarged from the 2nd to 3rd segment. The thoracic spines and the anal spines are pale yellowish brown. As the body grows to a length of 10mm in 3-4 days for this instar, the yellowish brown body color darkens to purplish brown.

Two views of a 2nd instar caterpillar, newly moulted, length: 6mm.

Two views of a 2nd instar caterpillar, late in this stage, length: 10mm

Field shots of a Tailed Jay caterpillar on the same leaf over the course of 2 days.
Left: 1st instar; right: early 2nd instar.

There is no drastic change in appearance in the newly moulted 3rd instar caterpillar. Noticeable are the color change of the thoracic splines to black, and the change to completely white anal spines. This instar takes another 3 days to complete with body grown to about 10mm in length.

Two views of a 3rd instar caterpillar, early in this stage, length: 10mm

As growth proceeds in the 3rd instar, the white dorsal patch on the posterior abdominal segments gradually changes to yellow. This instar takes another 3-4 days to complete with the body grown to about 21mm in length. Numerous small markings, dark in color, appear on the body surface towards the end of this instar. At the same time, the thoracic and anal spines become black with a bluish sheen at the distal end.

Two views of a 3rd instar caterpillar, midway in this stage, length: 15mm

Two views of a 3rd instar caterpillar, late in this stage, length: 21mm

The body of the 4th instar caterpillar is mainly yellowish green and speckled with small dark green markings. The yellow dorsal patches on posterior abdominal segments have become less well defined in its boundary. Each thoracic spine on the 3rd thoracic segment now has an orange circular base. This instar lasts a further 3-4 days with body length reaching about 26mm.

Two views of a 4th instar caterpillar, length: 25mm

The 5th instar caterpillar resembles the late 4th instar caterpillar, but without the dorsal patch and with the body color in a more uniform colour of yellowish green to orchre-yellow.
The 5th instar lasts for 5-6 days, and the body length reaches 40-43mm.

Two views of a 5th instar caterpillar, early in this stage, length: 26mm

Two views of a 5th instar caterpillar, late in this stage, length: 39mm

Field shots of Tailed Jay caterpillars. Top: 3rd instar; bottom: 5th instar

Toward the end of the 5th instar, the body gradually shortens in length. At the same time, the body turns completely yellow with all markings faded away. After doing some wandering around for a pupation site, the caterpillar eventually comes to rest on the surface of a leaf in an upright position and becomes a pre-pupatory larva. Here the caterpillar prepares a silk pad, and a silk girdle, both of which are critical for the success of the pupation event later on.

Two views of a pre-pupatory larva of the Tailed Jay.

Pupation takes place a day later. The pupa suspends itself with a silk girdle from the leaf surface, further secured with and a firm anchor at the posterior end. The pupa is yellowish green, about 33mm in length and has a slender and obtusely pointed thoracic process. The abdomen has two dorsal carinae. Reddish brown ridges run laterally to the tip of the mesothoracic horn which is directed forwards.

A time-lapse pupation sequence of a Tailed Jay caterpillar

Two views of a fresh pupa.

The pupal period lasts for 12-13 days, and the pupa turns black in the wing pads the night before eclosion. The apple-green spots on the forewings also become visible through the pupal skin at this stage. The adult butterfly emerges the next morning to commence the ``high-flying'' phase of its life cycle.

Two views of a mature Tailed Jay pupa.

A time-lapse eclosion sequence (partial) of a Tailed Jay adult

A newly eclosed Tailed Jay resting on the pupal case.


  • The Butterflies of The Malay Peninsula, A.S. Corbet and H.M. Pendlebury, 4th Edition, Malayan Nature Society.
  • The Butterflies of Hong Kong, M. Bascombe, G. Johnston, F. Bascombe, Princeton University Press 1999
Text by Horace Tan, Photos by Anthony Wong, Mark Wong, Henry Koh, Tan Ben Jin, Sunny Chir and Horace Tan