Archdukes, Counts and Popinjays

The late 19th century British military men who had the leisure to turn into naturalists seemed to spend their days assigning “common names” to butterflies which had been described in the preceding centuries. As a result, the plains and hills of India are populated by exotic British nobles and their hangers on. We know these names from Charles Bingham’s monographs on the butterflies of India, but I wonder whether the idiosyncracies are his alone. The Dark Archduke (Lexias dirtea) was far from rare in the Hollongapar Gibbon Sanctuary. I kept noticing the brightly spotted females (see the featured photo) in clearings and along tracks in the jungle, as they came briefly to rest on the ground.

I had a harder time spotting the male. The one time I was certain was when I saw the specimen in the photo above. The brown spotted one is the male L. dirtea. The brightly striped one is a Common Lascar (another example of the idiosyncratic British naming system). I saw several butterflies perched just above head height on bushes around the tracks that I followed, which could be the male.

The photo that you see above is of a Popinjay (Stibochiona nicea). The archaic 19th century word describes a vain and colourfully dressed person from a middle English word for parrot, descended from Arabic through Spanish and French. This name also comes to us from Charles Bingham’s famous monographs on the butterflies of India. There were a couple of times when I was not sure that a similar looking butterfly was really the Popinjay; it could have been the male Dark Archduke. The spots at the wing edges of a Popinjay extend over both fore and hind wings, but on the male Dark Archduke similar decorations occur only on the hindwing. Information on the Popinjay is scarce; all I could find were descriptions. Nothing seems to be recorded about its caterpillars, and what they feed on, nor about its caterpillar and pupa.

The pupa that someone found on a dry leaf (photo above) was very likely to be of a Dark Archduke. I wish I’d managed to see one of its caterpillars. The photos that I saw of the later moults of the Dark Archduke’s caterpillars are spectacular.

So many archdukes and only one count! I saw this single Grey Count (Tanaecia lepidea) basking in the last light of the day. Interestingly, this is more widespread in India, being found all along the foothills of the Himalayas east of Uttarakhand, and in the Western Ghats. I may have seen this before in the nearby reserve forest of Nameri, north of the Brahmaputra, but I don’t recall seeing it in other parts of India. I did not see the caterpillars of this species, nor the pupa. Descriptions and photos of these earlier stages of its life-cycle make me believe that I’m missing something spectacular.


An orange oakleaf

While walking through the Hollongapar Gibbon Sanctuary, I kept seeing a bright orange, blue and black butterfly flitting just under the lower canopy. It was a good flyer, and kept disappearing into the darkness beyond the paths we were following. Mandar claims that he doesn’t know butterflies, but he manages to give a good imitation of an expert. He said immediately that this was an Orange Oakleaf (Kallima inachus).

This was my first sighting of this widespread flyer. Its range extends from Jammu and Kashmir east to Arunachal Pradesh and the other states of north-eastern India along the foothills of the Himalayas. It is also found in central India and the Western Ghats. Mandar was keeping a close look at one while it flew, and so noticed when it came to rest on the trunk of a tree. At rest it is perfectly camouflaged as a leaf. A bird had clearly taken a bite out of the wings of this one.

Very few things can fly with half of its wings gone. If you look at a butterfly carefully, you’ll see that its muscles drive only the front wings; the back wings are usually just loosely attached to the pair in front. The larger surface area of the paired wings allows the maneuverability needed to evade predators. Laboratory studies have shown that butterflies can continue to fly without their hindwings; they just become a little slower. This study also has an interesting bit of speculation about why day-flying butterflies and moths are often brightly coloured.

I haven’t seen a butterfly which is missing bits out of its front wings. I suppose they just can’t fly without them. If a bird gets a bite out of the forewing, then the butterfly just falls out of the air and the bird can just pick it up. It would be interesting to keep watch for a photo of a butterfly with part of its forewings gone.

Purple sapphire

I saw this small but extremely attractive butterfly flutter down on to a fallen leaf. It preened in the sun, and I got off a shot showing the iridescence in its dark upper wing: you can see the purple colour in the featured photo. Notice the thin tails at the edges of the hindwings? This feature made me think of it as a hairstreak butterfly, and I wasted time looking for an identification. It is actually a copper. It sat on a dry leaf for a short while but opened its wings only briefly. Most of the time it held its wings closed to show the yellow and red underside (photo below).

After I figured that it is the appropriately named Purple Sapphire (Heliophorus epicles) I recalled that I’d seen it a decade ago in the Burapahar range of Kaziranga. Then, as now, I’d seen it resting very low down. It seems to be a widespread resident in the north-east of India, but its Wikipedia article records it from as far west as Himachal Pradesh. I’ve now encountered it twice, in April and May, both times at altitudes of less than 100 meters, far below those mentioned in its Wikipedia article. This article says that it is common in disturbed habitats at the edges of forests, which is in complete agreement with my own few sightings.

Sailers and Lascars

Many of the butterflies of India were given their English common names by Charles Bingham, a career military officer in British India, who took up entomology as a very serious hobby after being posted to Burma in 1877. The butterfly genera called Lascars and Sailers were given their English common names by him, in the idiosyncratic manner of the 19th century British in India. Eastern Indian sailors on British vessels were called lascars; the names throw light on British society of that time.

The common lascar (Pantoporia hordonia), one of which you see in the featured photo, was described in 1790. But a common name was given by Bingham in his books on the butterflies of India, published in 1905 and 1907, when he settled in England after his retirement. The sullied sailer (Neptis clinia), which you see in the photo below, has the same overall shape and markings, albeit in different colours.

The sailers and lascars were very common in early April in the Hollongapar forest. They flew at about shoulder and head height. Their flight is weak; every flap of the wing is followed by an interval of gliding, and they easily alight on a sunny leaf, or descend to the ground. Still, they fly up very quickly when they are disturbed.

I used the common names for the whole genus, because there are several species of each, distinguished by slightly different wing markings. You can see a whole lot of similar looking species in the web pages for Neptis, Pantoporia and Phaedyma in the IFoundButterflies web site. You find them all over India, and once upon a time I’d managed to chase down a fair fraction of them. In April I was happy to photograph just the two you see here.

The dark knight rests

The sun was moving down rapidly. In the last light of the day, I had my first sighting of the butterfly called the Knight (Lebadea martha). It was exactly where you might expect to find it: just over a meter from the ground, basking near an open patch of ground. I took a photo of this battle-scarred veteran. I learnt of the interesting eating habits of its caterpillar later. I also found afterwards that Assam in April is when you are most likely to find it in India. Detailed ecological studies are absent in India; they come from elsewhere in south-east Asia.

Amazingly, there is extensive scientific literature on the structure of the Knight’s wings in the field of nanomaterials. It’s almost as if Bruce Wayne was working on his armour. Wings of butterflies are made of a material called chitin, microscopically organized in very cleverly stacked scales. Chemists found that by treating the wings of a Knight, they could make wearable biosensors which could make very sensitive chemical analysis of people’s perspiration. Could a future version of a fitbit made of the wings of this butterfly provide early medical warnings for everyone?

On the forest floor

When I saw this hairy little beast crawling across the floor of the jungle, my first question was “What will it grow into?” Mandar said “I just about know butterflies. I can’t help you with caterpillars.” Indeed, there seems to be no easy way to relate a caterpillar to the adult. All I can say is that a caterpillar is more likely to grow into a moth than a butterfly, simply because there are 10 times more moths in the world than butterflies. Once you notice that a caterpillar is hairy the chance that it will grow into a moth increases even further. Caterpillars of butterflies are rarely hairy.

When I was a child our garden was full of hairy caterpillars which would irritate the skin awfully if you brushed against it. I must have done this several times, because I now have a strong aversion to touching caterpillars. I watched this guy make its way across the forest floor, and thought of all the leaves it was not eating. Ten minutes later I saw the white moth which you see in the photo above, and began to wonder whether this is what the caterpillar would grow into. This is not just idle speculation. The photo seems to be of a tussock moth (subfamily Lymantriinae), whose caterpillars are often hairy and cause itches.

Stump-tailed macaques

There was much excitement just as we emerged on an open track after a long, winding, walk through the jungle. Our gun-toting forest guard had walked past the track and into the jungle on the other side and found a little tribe of stump-tailed macaques. It was past our lunch-time, and our stomachs urged us back to base. As the others dithered a bit, I followed the forest guard into the trees. Soon enough I heard the rest of the troupers crashing into the jungle behind me. When I emerged into a little clearing, they were there: some of the last of the stump-tailed macaques (Macaca arctoides) of Assam.

The first one I saw looked like an aging hippy: long hair, beard, red sun-burnt face, a little startled at being disturbed in its commune with nature. Later, I realized that the resemblance to hippies ran deeper. After the first few startled glances, the troop ignored us and returned to their simple lives of grooming each other and simple contemplation. It was the middle of the day. We saw them resting on trees, but they would have spent the morning foraging on the ground. Little is known about these monkeys in their home range: south of the Brahmaputra and extending east into southern China, Vietnam and the Malayan peninsula. They are scarce throughout their home range. They are extinct in Bangladesh, parts of China, and are critically threatened in India. They are not found in Myanmar.

For many years these monkeys were used in the testing of cosmetics and medicines, until (in 1985) the Animal Liberation Front rescued an infant being used in sight deprivation experiments in California. This case eventually resulted in much stricter controls on the use of monkeys and apes in laboratories. A population was introduced into Mexico in 1974. I could not find the reasons for doing this: was it someone’s folly, or to create a population from which individuals could be easily captured for laboratory use? Most field studies on the behaviour of M. arctoides have been done on a “study population” in Mexico. All animals adapt to new environments, and monkey behaviour is among the most plastic. So I wonder how much of the literature on the behaviour of stump tailed Macaques is applicable in its ancient habitat. I guess the social hierarchy, establishment of matrilineal territories, and other generic macaque characteristics are independent of geography. But their food habits could have changed when they were put into a different environment. It would be wonderful to study them in the Hollongapar reserve.

The clearing was small, and our large troop of camera-laden humans spread out among the trees. I was fascinated by an individual which sat alone, and seemed lost in contemplation. Was this a philosopher amongst macaques, pondering deeply the nature of reality, or was it lost in thoughts about its bowels? I have not seen any other species in the wild which is so indifferent to humans. As a result, I’ve not had the opportunity to study a wild individual of another species so closely. I look at it photos now, and wonder what fills its head.

The only activity came from a child. It peered about, looking curiously at the nearest cameras, and then, when they did nothing more, climbed further into the canopy. I watched it climb and admired its fludity. Later I realized that all four limbs of the stump tailed macaque are adapted to grasping (you can see it in several of the photos here). So the reports from Mexico of troops foraging mainly on the ground seem a little suspect to me. Even a simple record of how many hours a day they spend on the ground and on trees could be the beginning of an useful research program. This is a species which could disappear just as we are beginning to know them; it is such a frustrating feeling.

We left reluctantly. Even our guide and guard were engrossed in looking at the macaques. As we left, they put a mark on the trees near the trail. Apparently sightings are rare, and this was the first one this year. Our guide thought that the troop could stay here for a few days, and he would like to come back to look at them. Was poaching a problem, I asked as we walked off. He said that illegal logging was a small problem, but poaching was not. My last memories are of the macaque philosopher turning over a knotty problem in its mind. How many years does it have left?

Wood spiders

I know very little about spiders, too little to be able to identify species except by doing image searches on Google. The one in the featured photo is probably a signature spider (Argiope anasuja). Notice the paired legs delicately touching strands of the web, waiting for the tell-tale vibration when some prey blunders into it. Those four zig-zag elements on the web are called web decorations. It seems that their purpose is not known. That leaves me free to speculate. My guess is that they act as springs, isolating vibrations from the body of the spider and the rest of the web. Someday I will have the equipment with me to test out this hypothesis, or at least to measure whether these fat coils of silk have anything to do with vibrations. I saw this one near a forest guards’ colony outside Kaziranga. They are common in gardens in small towns and villages.

The next three are definitely wood spiders. I saw them on a walk in the Hollongapar sanctuary. They sit quite differently in their web. The eight legs are well spread out, and the web itself is less organized than the previous one. They are all called golden orb weavers (genus Nephila) because of the clear yellow tinge to their silk. The webs look untidy; I wonder whether some of those hanging pouches are egg sacs. The one in the photo above is called the black wood spider (Nephila kuhlii).

I cannot identify this, but from the yellow colour of the web, I suppose it is also some species of Nephila. Wood spiders have extreme sexual dimorphism. The tiny orange dot that you see in the web above is a male. There are usually several males hanging about on each female’s web. I haven’t seen them mating yet, but I guess I’ll need to have a macro lens on if I want to take a photo of the act. Another common feature of all these spiders is that their webs are roughly at the height of your eyes. This makes them easy to see, but also easy for animals to run into.

The photo above is definitely of the Nephila pilipes. I’d first noticed this in Japan, and since then I’ve been seeing this species in all parts of Asia. The web is highly irregular, and the spider sits off center. You can see that the silk has a tinge of yellow in it. This colour is the reason it is sometimes called the giant golden orb weaver spider. Strangely, it is not much larger than the other golden orb weavers whose photos you can see above. Still, a rose by another name …

Let me round this off with something that is definitely not a wood spider, although I saw it on brightly painted wooden post inside Kaziranga forest. I think this is a crab spider. The number of crab spiders is so enormous that a bunch of hobbyists could spend their lives just looking at them. I guess this is why there are no spider enthusiasts; you can spend your life traveling to look at spiders all over the world, be successful at that, and never come close to seeing all.


Almost the first thing I saw in Hollongapar Gibbon Sanctuary was an abandoned railway station. I’ve already written about the railway line which fragments the sanctuary and still has heavy train traffic. Because of my new-found interest in abandoned colonial-era structures, I made a beeline for it even as my companions were stretching their legs. Tall trees rose behind it. Grass and little herbs had taken root on the roof, but the sturdy brick structure was reasonably intact from inside.

The paint was peeling and the doors had disappeared, but the plasterwork inside was relatively undamaged. I could only see two or three places where large chunks of plaster had fallen away. The floor was pretty undamaged, although it was strewn with trash. It was interesting to stand inside and look out at the rain forest and the single railway track which passed by. It is not hard to reel back time in your head to see a slow train come to a halt, while waiting passengers streamed out of the room to board it.

The long cement bench against the wall with windows was also pretty serviceable. At a pinch one could think of dusting it off and settling down for the night. One of the windows was missing its lattice work, but this would be hardly worse than the doorways without doors. The walls were typical Indian Railways dado: darker colour below shoulder height, and light paint above.

Even so far away from civilization, the wall has become a canvas, even a palimpsest, for Amit, Amar, Samrit, Deep, and a few other men. There are loves that dare not speak their names: B+B and D+S were par for the course. I was more intrigued by L+G+D and Amit+3. Something different is developing in these places clearly.

This was clearly the waiting room. The ticket office was next door: inside the massive prefab container. The counter was still open. The corrugated metal sheets still held their paint; there was no obvious sign of corrosion. Even the net over the window did not look badly rusted. There must have been a little platform of wood in front of the window. Part of the support is still there, but the plank above it has been taken away.

I peered in through the window into the large hollow space beyond. Wouldn’t it be wonderful for a photographic exhibition on wildlife? I thought of hanging my photos here, with bright LEDs spotlighting each. I suppose the space still belongs to the Railways, and if I want to have an exhibition here, I’ll have to apply to them.

A birdwing butterfly

As we walked through the Hollongapar sanctuary, I saw several of the common birdwings (Troides helena). These are distinctive large black and yellow butterflies which usually fly fairly high but below the canopy of the forest. I’d first seen them several years back somewhat further south, in Tripura. Its range continues south and east from Nepal into the Indonesian archipelago. It is so distinctive, that I had no trouble recalling its name. I had seen a mating dance once, but this time I saw them only singly.

T. helena gets its colour from pigments, unlike many common butterflies in which diffraction of light plays a part. The strong colour advertises the fact that it is poisonous. Usually in butterflies most of the eating is done by the caterpillar (larva), so that the adult (imago) can spend its time flitting from flower to partner and so on. The poison is obtained by the larva from some of its food plants. I was surprised to find that it is fairly long-lived for a butterfly: the larval stage lasts for three to four weeks, then it pupates for about two weeks, and the adult can live as long as six weeks.

All morning we’d seen these butterflies. After lunch near the forest guest house, I walked back along one of the forest paths to see whether I could spot any more butterflies. The Lotus stayed behind near the guest house. When I returned disgruntled from a failed search, she had the wonderful shot which you see as the featured photo. This individual looks like a male. What a wonderful piece of serendipity, and what a lovely picture. The Lotus was kind enough to give me the photo for my use in this post; if you like it, please leave a note which I can pass on.