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Denizens of the dappled forest: butterflies

Last October (2017) I had the pleasure of spending a few days in a delightful bungalow at Malee’e Nature Lovers Bungalows; a delightful resort, nestled under shadow of Doi Chiang Dao, Thailand’s third highest mountain (2,175 m). The attraction of this temporary abode was that it overlooked a little wood, beside a stream (below). A quiet place where butterflies and dragonflies live, and where moths come out at night attracted to the light on the balcony.

Bungalow at Malee’s Nature Lovers resort, Doi Chiang Dao

Not an especially unusual place, but a quiet haven of dappled woodland, with a nice selection of butterflies flitting about under the trees. During the day, there were lots of nice sunspots; the sort of place one might see a Speckled wood butterfly in Europe. But this was a tropical situation and the residents of these little sunspots were very different. At least in form, but perhaps not so different in behaviour?

Sunspots in the dappled wood, Doi Chiang Dao

One of the most common butterflies underneath the trees in this little wood, was the Archduke (Lexias pardalis dirteana). The males and females look very different in this species. The females like to bask in the sunspots (below), and with their brown wings, dappled with yellow spots, they are well camouflaged, I would judge.

Archduke (Lexias pardalis dirteana) female basking in sunspot. Doi Chiang Dao

The undersides of the female Archdukes (L. pardalis dirteana) are also quite cryptic and help them to blend in against a background of dry leaves (below).

Archduke (Lexias pardalis dirteana) female underside
Archduke (Lexias pardalis dirteana) male. Doi Chiang Dao

The male Archdukes on the other hand are rather different in appearance (above). I don’t think that they have quite given up on camouflage – with their largely brown wings and a few yellow spots – but they also have other priorities, and that means looking smart and dapper! They need to attract the ladies, and their bright blue and white scales along the wing margins no doubt have something to do with this. Perhaps they look good in UV. Butterflies have sophisticated colour vision, with a very broad range of light perception – in some species ranging from ultraviolet through to red – amongst the broadest of all animals and better than us! Here (below) is a close up of the leading edge of the forewing of a male Archduke, showing nice blue iridescent wing scales.

Archduke (Lexias pardalis dirteana) male

There were lots of interactions going on in the wood; pairs of butterflies engaging in spiraling flights, seen in so many species all over the world, but devilishly difficult to photograph! These circling flights might be little battles – ‘wars of attrition’ – between two males, perhaps a territorial dispute over ownership of a sunspot territory. Strangely enough, the resident butterfly almost invariable wins. Holding on to a territory in this way greatly increases a male’s chances of locating a mate and the residents are very tenacious in hanging on to their tiny piece of real estate! Or they might be courtship flights. A male and a female dancing together in the air to see whether they like each other enough to settle down on a leaf and start the serious business of courtship! I came across one such pair evaluating each other in this way (below). Oddly enough, one was a wet season form (with large ventral eyespots) and the other was a dry season form (with small, reduced ventral eyespots). Perhaps it was on the cusp of changing seasons, and both forms were around.

Painted Bushbrowns (Mycalesis sangaica) next to each other. Dry and wet season forms.

There were lots of Bushbrown butterflies about, of different species. These are notoriously difficult to identify, well for me at least, so please don’t take my identifications as absolute certainties. More best guesses based on photographs on the Net!

Painted Bushbrown (Mycalesis sangaica) Doi Chiang Dao

There was lots of mating going on! In other satyrine species, like the African butterfly, Bicyclus anynana (Nymphalidae, Satyrinae) – the females choose males on the basis of the size and UV reflectivity of the central white pupil in the dorsal eyespots, i.e. the ones on the upper wings of the males. The lovely multiple eyespots on the ventral sides of butterflies (above and below) have evolved to serve a different function: namely predator deflection. Whether these findings hold true for all butterflies like this, I don’t know, but I am inclined to think that it might do.

Painted Bushbrowns (Mycalesis sangaica) mating. Doi Chiang Dao
Burmese Bushbrowns (Mycalesis perseoides) mating. Doi Chiang Dao

A species with particularly attractive eyespots is the Banded Treebrown (Lethe confusa), see below. A nice combination of cryptic brown colouration together with predator-deflecting eyespots and a broad white band, perhaps some form of disruptive camouflage?

Banded Treebrown (Lethe confusa). Doi Chiang Dao.

Another species which was quite common is the aptly named Common evening brown (Melanitis leda). Another butterfly with wet and dry season forms. The one shown below was sitting next to a bee; perhaps they were just having a little rest in the sun! In actual fact, the evening brown is a crepuscular species – meaning that it is usually active at twilight. In Australia, males were found defending their territories for a short (c. 30 min) period in the early evening (1). Whether the same happened here in Thailand, I am not sure.

Common evening brown (Melanitis leda) wet season form with bee. Doi Chiang Dao

Another species, very well adapted to blending in against a background of dry leaves on the forest floor, is the Indian Leaf butterfly (Kallima inachus). Funnily enough, the one I managed to get close to – but not close enough! – was enjoying a little sunshine on the grass, not sitting amongst the dry leaves which its ancestors had spent millions of years evolving a perfect cryptic resemblance to!

Indian Leaf butterfly (Kallima inachus) Doi Chiang Dao

The upperside of this butterfly is absolutely beautiful, but this one only granted me a glimpse of the wonderful colours on its dorsal (upper) wing surfaces (below).

Indian Leaf butterfly (Kallima inachus) female showing ups. Doi Chiang Dao

There were lots of other ‘small brown jobs’ – a term usually used for birds! But it might be best to finish with one of the most beautiful butterflies down in the wood: the Popinjay (Stibochiona nicea subucula). Both sexes are strikingly attractive in this species, but the male is a real dandy with his lovely blue and white against a velvety black background. Whoever named this butterfly – George Robert Gray FRS (1808 – 1872) – certainly chose an appropriate name!

Popinjay (Stibochiona nicea subucula). Doi Chiang Dao

I particularly like the blue eyes and red proboscis of the popinjay; so smart!

Popinjay (Stibochiona nicea subucula) blue eyes

Nice to think of all these butterflies, and more, enjoying their brief lives in the wood. Hopefully, they will all be there when I next visit.

References

  1. Kemp, D. J. (2002). Visual mate‐searching behaviour in the evening brown butterfly, Melanitis leda (L.)(Lepidoptera: Nymphalidae). Austral Entomology41(4), 300-305.

rcannon992 View All

I am a retired entomologist with a background in quarantine pests and invasive invertebrates. I studied zoology at Imperial College (University of London) and did a PhD on the population dynamics of a cereal aphid (Metopolophium dirhodum) in the UK. I spent 5 years with the British Antarctic Survey studing cold hardiness of Antarctic invertebates and 17 years with the Food and Environment Research Agency. My main interests now are natural history, photography, painting and bird watching.

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