What wings dare

On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?

The Tyger (1794) William Blake

Milkweed butterflies, like common crows (Euploea core) and common tigers (Danaus genutia), lay eggs on trees full of toxins. The newly hatched caterpillars then feed on the leaves of these plants and concentrate the toxins in their bodies. The toxins remain through their metamorphosis into butterflies, and make them undesirable prey. I’d assumed that just as they lay eggs on different plants, the adults must take nectar from different plants. I was surprised to find many individuals from both species feeding on one plant. I suppose that there are species of plants whose nectar attracts one or the other, but not both, species of butterflies. Otherwise the crows and tigers would be in competition. There’s nothing wrong with competition, but one eventually wins, and the other has to find a less desirable range. There is no evidence for that happening to one of these species.

A rich ecosystem is full of creatures utilizing every resource, and individuals of one species are a resource for another. The caterpillars are parasites on their host plants, but the adults have reached a sexual mutualism with nectar yielding plants. The plants require butterflies for fertlization, and the butterflies are unable to lay eggs without the sugar that the plants supply. These butterflies have their own parasites: tiny flies (tachinids) and wasps (chalcids). They lay their eggs in caterpillars. The parasitic maggots hatch and eat their hosts from inside. Although I haven’t seen the parasites yet I remain hopeful and ready with my camera; the adult flies and wasps are big enough that I could photograph them. On the other hand, the only symbiotes of these two which have been studied are really tiny: bacteria from a genus called Wolbachia which live entirely inside the cells of the butterflies and influence their reproductive strategies. There is no chance that my camera will ever catch these.

The jungle was full of such lovely small things. The photo of the spider web that you see was taken on a path called thandi sadak (cool road). It was surrounded by fields full of this plant that some would recognize immediately; they grow wild across the hills and are a target for foragers. The spider itself was too small to be seen. There’s a lot of literature on how cannabinoids influence spiders. You can actually see a typical example here: some of the space between the spokes have not been filled in. I’m not sure that spiders munch leaves, but they could be eating insects which have taken up toxins from the plant. Although chital (Axis axis, spotted deer) grazed in neighbouring patches of grass, they did not venture into fields of Grass.

Less spectacular than the crows and tigers, but equally abundant, were these common sailors (Neptis hylas). They have an interesting flight: a couple of wing beats and then a long glide, then again a wing beat or two. I would like to weigh them, because the flight pattern could mean that the wings are large compared to the weight, like a glider’s. They are not milkweed butterflies, and there is no record of them being distasteful or poisonous. That’s why it puzzles me that there are so many of them in the jungle, and there seem to be no predators. A low body weight could also imply that they are too small a portion to be worthwhile for birds to hunt. Perhaps also their fecundity, eggs hatch multiple times a year, keep their numbers high although they are edible.

A dark shape flew into the leaf-litter below the where the sailor was sunning itself. The moment it stopped moving it disappeared. I searched the ground and couldn’t see anything. Then there was a tiny movement in the ground, and I could focus on it. This was a Prosotas butterfly, possibly the common lineblue (Prosotas nora). I always have to look at the lineblues carefully to figure out the species, and the strong sunlight with dark shadows, and the odd angle I was looking at it prevents me from making a firm identification. But this is was a happy sighting: here was a non-poisonous butterfly which took good care to camouflage itself. Even in the photo, you could mistake it for a dried leaf if you just glance across it quickly.

The buffer zones of these protected forests are set up to attract large numbers of eco-tourists, so that residents have a stake in keeping the jungle protected. But since the average person is interested only in large animals, tigers or elephants and deer, there is little opportunity for those interested in small things like insects to observe them. From the back of a jeep I saw only the small creatures that I already knew. Seeing the familiar in a new setting can always show you new behaviour and raise new questions. So I found myself happy even with these limited opportunities.

Crow

Late mornings are times when you can sit in a garden and watch butterflies. They are not early risers, they would have woken and stretched their wings to the sun while you have breakfast, and will be out late in the morning for a few sips of nectar. The common crow (Euploea core) is one of the easiest to photograph. It is disdained by predators because the plants that it has fed on as a caterpillar fill it with distasteful chemicals. As a result it can afford to fly slow and sit on a flower for long times.

Even though it is so dark, pay attention. When it sits on a flower in bright sunlight you can see its glossy wings reflect the flower. I was very happy when it decided to land on marigolds. As I’d expected, at one point it turned. and I could capture the reflection of the marigold in its wing. If you can see it from India east and south all the way to Australia, but not on the islands of the Philippines, Borneo, or Papua and New Guinea. There must be an interesting story to follow up there another time, when I have another photo of the crow.

December 24, 2011

Why did we decide to go birding in the Himalayas in winter? When I think back, I believe the answer must have been that in the heat of May we could not think of the Himalayas as anything but pleasant. So we moved up for our vacation at a time when each and every bird seemed to have migrated in the opposite direction. As a birding trip it was a disaster. But there was compensation. I’ve never had a view of Kanchenjuga as good as that. The featured photo is the view we had from our cabin window on a freezing dawn.

We walked the same trails in and around Lava and Neora valley that we did again early in spring this year. In spring the birds begin to return and you see a lot of activity. In winter that year there was not a single bird to be seen. The ferns were just opening up though, and I had wonderful shots of the fronds unfolding.

It was hardly a good time for moths and butterflies either. We saw the hardy Indian tortoiseshell (Aglais caschmirensis), a perennial sight at these middle heights. I spotted a single specimen of a fabulously patterned moth sitting one morning. I’ve never seen it again, and I can’t identify it. An expert lepidopterist refused to answer my question about it, so I assume she was also not sure of an ID.

We spent the day wandering around paths through the valley. Elsewhere I’ve written about the beautiful houses in this area. The traditional houses are either made of wood, or have a timber frame, filled in with woven mats and then plastered over. I love the beautiful contrasting colours that they paint the doors and windows in. Outside each house is either a small garden, or a row of flowers in planters. These hamlets are small and poor, but look beautiful. Although we saw no birds, it was a wonderful day.

The common lime

Late in the morning I found a nice spot in the hotel in Tadoba from which to do some butterfly photography. Since these flighty creatures are more active at this time, it helps to have a bright day. A common lime (Papilio demoleus) flitted along a straggly row of periwinkles at the edge of the road. In the mornings it prefers to fly low. The butterflies lay their eggs on citrus trees, and the caterpillars are considered to be great pests since they can munch their way through substantial amounts of leaves. Tadoba is close to Nagpur, which is a center of orange trade. So there could have been citrus trees in the neighbourhood. In any case, in there parts of India ber (Ziziphus mauritiana), another host plant for the caterpillars, is also common.

What I find interesting about this butterfly is that it is highly invasive, being found across the world. In the 21st century it managed to reach the Dominican Republic, and is currently spreading fast across the Americas. It has no natural toxins, and is an easy mark for predators. The caterpilar is also parasitized by several wasps, whose larvae eat it from the inside while it is alive. How does it manage to spread in spite of these natural barriers to growth? The answer seems to be that it breeds fast. In the region around Nagpur there are eight or nine generations in a year. In cooler places they may pupate through winter.

Later I found a potter wasp’s nest in the hotel. These wasps belong to the subfamily Eumeninae, and are parasitic. They catch larvae of beetles or spiders, paralyses them, and brings them to their mud nests. There they lay eggs inside the paralysed animal, so that their larvae can feed on them as they grow. I wonder what fraction of wasps have evolved such parasitic lifestyles.

East-Indian sausages

East-Indians are a less known community centered around Mumbai. If you haven’t heard of them before, you might be tempeted to think that they are smaller in number than the Parsis. But, in fact, there are six times as many East Indians in Mumbai as there are Parsis across the world. The East Indians were the original inhabitants of Mumbai. They are Marathi speaking fishermen, the Koli, of Thane, and Vasai who converted to Christianity after the arrival of the Portuguese, and with whom they had extensive dealings. This was at the time that the Portuguese used Vasai as their second most important port in India. I was quite puzzled by this name for the inhabitants of the western part of India, until I realized that I had to think like the confused Portuguese. For them this was India to the east, whereas Central and South America were India to the west.

The gratuitious featured photo shows two Indian Cabbage White butterflies (Pieris canidia) which I photographed in the ruins of the Vasai Fort. It is a place worth visiting. East Indians live in the villages around it, still farming and fishing as their ancestors did.

Their method of making sausage yields a wonderful product. Salt-cured shoulder of ham and bits of the neck are chopped fine and mixed with the a mixture of ginger and garlic, turmeric and cumin. A little red chili is added, but the much less than the fiery heat of the Goan chourico. The mixture is pickled for a night in toddy vinegar, yielding a fresh and mildly sour taste. I wolfed down a plateful with toast, pausing only at the last sausage to take a photo. It really is that good.

A wanderer pauses

Half the morning had been spent traveling. I spent the rest sitting outside my hotel room in Tadoba watching butterflies. A common wanderer (Pareronia hippia) paused briefly on a flower, and I snatched it up in my camera. I liked the transparency of the wings: you can see the periwinkle through its wings. I have a soft spot for it, since it was among the first butterflies that I photographed. But it seems to be a completely unremarkable butterfly. That is, until you find that it belongs to the family Pieridae, otherwise known as the yellows and whites. What is this decidedly blue butterfly doing in this group?

Mimicry is the answer. Across India three butterflies often occur in the same habitat: the blue tiger (Tirumala limniace), the glassy tiger (Parantica aglea), and the common wanderer. The first two are the poisonous milkweed butterflies. They have evolved to resemble each other in marking so that predators who have once had a bad experience with one do not attack the other. They are known as Müllerian mimics. The tasty morsel, the wanderer, tries to cash in on this experience by evolving to mimic the distasteful ones. In the gallery above, the photo on the left is of a blue tiger, and I’ve placed the photo of the wanderer next to it for comparison. This deceptive patterning is called Batesian mimicry.

The fact that the wanderer is a Pierid is clear when you see it with closed wings. The underwing colouration is white with light brown markings. Interestingly, the underwing pattern has evolved under sexual selection, and the upper surface under predation. Ecology shapes biology in such strange ways.

Guardian of the golden apples

He thought he saw an Argument
That proved he was the Pope:
He looked again, and found it was
A Bar of Mottled Soap.
“A fact so dread,” he faintly said,
“Extinguishes all hope!”

Lewis Carroll (Song of the Mad Gardener)

Waiting for tigers can be futile only if you close your eyes to everything else in the jungle. Five jeeps, drawn by alarm calls of chital and monkeys, were spaced out on a track in Tadoba to get a view of a tiger. It was already a little late in the morning. In spite of the repeated calls, I was sure that it would soon find shade and lie down, without putting in an appearance. After all, it was late enough for butterflies to have started sunning themselves. I focused on a rice swift (Borbo cinnara). Five petalled yellow flowers are so common that I have difficulty identifying the man-high plant it was getting its nectar from. But I did know that the caterpillar at the edge of the leaf right at top will not grow into the same butterfly.

What makes better sense? Would butterflies put their larvae on the same plants that they would depend on for nectar later in life? Or would it be common for them to lay their eggs on a plant which they would visit for nectar? So many unknowns! Why worry about inconstant tigers?

The rice swift does have the club at the tip of the antenna which distinguish butterflies from other moths, unlike other members of its family, the Hesperiidae. The family name probably comes from the Hesperides, the women who guarded the golden apples of the tree which Gaea gave to Hera at her marriage to Zeus. Their name reflects one account of their parentage, from Hesperos, the evening star, who was also called Vesper. This one, appropriately, flitted from one golden flower to another, but was ineffective at chasing away the caterpillars which fed on the plant.

Tigers, Rajahs, and Nawabs

When I smugly said “I’ve seen a few today,” in answer to The Family’s lament about not having seen a tiger during the day’s safari, her eyes popped wide. But she knows me too well. In seconds she said “I don’t mean butterflies.” Not even a blue tiger, Thirumala limniace? Not even when it is feeding on cypress vine morning glory, Ipomoea quamoclit? I thought it was quite a sight, the sun shining through the wings of the butterfly. As for the flower, it may have originated in Central America, but by the mid-18th century, when Carl Linnaeus named it, it was already widely established globally across the tropics, leading him to describe it as a native of India.

My attention had been initially drawn to a tall herb with red flowers glowing with the afternoon sun shining through it. From the shape of the leaves it could have been marijuana, but the flower rules out this unlikely identification. My best guess is that this is the Monarch Rosemallow (Hibiscus radiatus). Jungle safaris are not the best suited to spotting wild flowers. Rules of usage prevented me from getting off the jeep and walking round to see the flower from the front to confirm my guess.

The reason we had stopped was a piece of carrion on the ground, under a distant tree, but visible from the track. The guides had identified it as a leopard kill from a few days ago. The disturbed leopard had not come back to claim it. The fact that it had been lying there for a few days told us that there were no vultures left in this area any longer: an unfortunate local extinction in an area once known for white-rumped vultures.The Commander’s eagle eyes had spotted a butterfly on the carcass. I took a photo. The distance and the dappled light made it hard to get a good photo, but it was enough to see two butterflies and identify them.

The one in the foreground was definitely the Common Nawab (Polyura athamas), of which I had a good photo from thirteen years ago. I’d seen the other fluttering around canopies in the forest, and misidentified it earlier. It was the Tawny Rajah (Charaxes solon). The common names betrayed the casual racism of the 19th century English in India, who named many nectar feeders after ranks in the British military, but the carrion feeders after the ranks of Indian nobles.

I’ve seen a Baron and a Sailor feed on mud, and an Admiral on animal dung. But seeing the Rajah and Nawab feast on meat made me think of matters that I’d not given any time to earlier. Years of helping The Clan to reinforce better eating habits in my nieces has given me the certain knowledge that animal metabolism requires more than sugar. In this light it seems odd that some species could survive on sugar alone. I jumped to the conclusion that nectars must contain a lot of amino acids. Later search led to papers which build on exactly such an insight. Apparently the study of amino acids in nectar is now a booming field. There are studies of how the amino acid profile changes in species across a family and how these serve to attract different pollinators, what other purposes these acids serve, even how they get into the flower in the first place! But every question leads to another. Why do these two butterflies need the extra amino acids? The beginning of an answer is the observation that it is largely the males who prefer non-flower sources of food. Here is a mystery that requires more thought.

A plain earl and a restricted demon

One of the fun things about butterflies is the names. It is so easy to conjure up a tale of the fantastic with just two sightings: one of a small butterfly called the Restricted Demon (Notocrypta curvifascia) and the other of a middle-sized one called a Plain Earl (Tanaecia jahnu).

As we checked out of the hotel in Naukuchiatal, I spotted the Restricted Demon sunning itself on the leaf of a potted plant. The larva feeds on a variety of useful plants: ginger, turmeric, plantains. So the demon part of the name is easy to understand. The restricted part may come from the fact that it needs a temperate climate, and cannot be found in every place in South and South-eastern Asia. As I took the featured photo, I wondered which plant this demon had destroyed earlier in its life.

We’d decided to spend our last day in the hills walking about the Sat Tals, before leaving Kumaon in the evening. The Sat Tal area was full of smoke from forest fires. As we walked around a lake, the light was strange, filtered through a haze of smoke. I was glad that my mask could filter out most of the pollution as I bent and squatted repeatedly to take photos of butterflies and insects. The ground was strewn with oak leaves and pine needles. They formed an interesting background when I took the photo of the Plain Earl that you see above. I suppose the subtle shadings in the castes of Britain (colonial Britain had no life peers) loomed large in the minds of the colonial naturalists who named them.

Two roads diverged

We had to park the car at the center of the little village of Mukteshwar. The road beyond this was under repair. We walked past a few shops and a post office. This was just a dusty cross roads, not a yellow wood, but our roads diverged here. The Family took the high road, up towards the Shiva temple and Chauli ki Jali, a rock face which is locally famous because it has become a favourite of rapellers (and no, that’s not an Anglicization of rapelleurs). I took the other, which was just as fair, because it was grassy and wanted wear. Late on a smoky morning was not the best time for either, but each of us enjoyed it.

The road I had taken wound above a wooded region called Kholiya. This is supposed to be a wonderful place for bird watching earlier in the morning. I stopped above a dense cluster of colonial era buildings. The air was full of bird calls. I’m not very good at identifying them, but a short message away are two experts. I recorded some of the sounds and sent them off. I had no luck at spotting birds at all, and I moved along soon.

The Family had found Chauli ki Jali, left completely to its own in this second pandemic year. The view would have been nice, she said, if there was less smoke in the air. She clambered about some of the rocks, got a few selfies against the bland gray smoke, while avoiding the fair bit of maskless tourists near the temple. The second wave was beginning to swell, and such tourists were to be given a wide berth.

A couple of hundred meters below, I had just walked past the cars parked on the side of the road by those same maskless tourists and found my morning’s muse: a crowd of Pachliopta aristolochiae, a swallow-tailed butterfly more well known as the common rose. This late in the morning they are extremely active and hard to photograph, so chasing them took up quite a bit of my time and energy, without producing anything useful. Photography is a nice and strenuous pastime, wouldn’t you say? When we got back together at the cross roads, both parties had stretched our legs adequately, and were ready to go look for lunch.