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Butterflies in their habitats

I am going to try and do something a little bit different in this blog; step back a bit and try to show butterflies in the habitats in which they occur. Not easy!

Common palmfly (Elymnias hypermnestra agina) resting on a branch in the forest. Chiang Mai Province, Thailand

What is a habitat? One definition might be: the location where an organism lives out its life-cycle (Dennis, 2010). However, butterflies usually need access to a variety of different sites and resources during the course of their life times: host plants on which to feed as larvae, places to perch and bask, locations to encounter mates – which might be high up on the top of a local hill – flowers to feed on, safe places to roost or copulate in, the list goes on and on. So in essence, a habitat will be the sum total of all the resources and particular conditions – each one may only occur at a given time in a certain place – that each species requires. Clearly, to describe such a thing photographically would need a whole series of photos, taken over time and space throughout the life history of an organism.

Common palmfly (Elymnias hypermnestra agina) female with prominent white spot. Thailand

Each species would need a whole book of text and photos to do it justice, and we can be sure that there would be plenty of blank pages. We simply don’t know much about the requirements of many species. So in practice, it is very hard to show a butterfly in its habitat; it might be there for one particular thing, or it might just be passing through on the way to somewhere else .

Great fivering (Ypthima dohertyi) lurking on the forest floor. Doi Ang Khang, Thailand

As butterfly photographers, we try very hard to get close to the insect and strive and get as ‘good’ a photograph as possible. Usually, that mean getting close, although macro lenses allow one to do this from a comfortable distance; but the effect is still a relatively close-up, or 1:1 view of the butterfly. In other words, one that shows all their details and colours. Sometimes we use flash light to enhance the colours and provide more illumination. Quite often we get too close and the image is blurred! What gets left out sometimes, is the background, although good photographers will always try to take a few situational shots (if they remember!)

Plain tiger (Danaus chrysippus) on resting on leaf. Rinca Island, Indonesia

So, what I have done below, is to show a butterfly as it appears from a distance – often the first shot that I took whilst ‘stalking’ it. I have also included a close-up shot of the same butterfly, for comparison. When one comes across a butterfly, it is doing something purposeful. In other words, it is not just hanging around! It may be a male perching on the leaf of a tree, looking out for passing females. It may be basking, trying to thermoregulate and make the most of the last rays of the setting sun (above).  It may have chosen that particular spot because it is where it is most likely to encounter members of the opposite sex. Perhaps it is near to the host plants of the species, which the females may be flying around looking for, on which to deposit their eggs. It might be drinking (below) or mud-puddling in search of nutrients.

Broad-banded swallowtails (Heraclides astyalus) drinking. Iguazu falls, Argentina

A male butterfly might also be defending a territory. He will vigorously defend this small piece of real estate against all comers, but especially against other males of the same species. Such intruders usually get chased out; the rule of thumb in butterflies, is that the ‘resident’ nearly always wins in these contests. Perhaps they are settled on the basis prior ownership? But sometimes the fights can be vigorous and prolonged.

Butterflies are often extremely wary and ‘flighty’; taking off as soon as you approach and settling down somewhere else, father away. I have a theory though, that you can gradually wear them down! Perhaps they just get habituated to the presence of a lumbering primate (?), but I like to think that they just get fed of moving, and say to themselves: ‘Oh sod it, take my picture if you really want to’! It certainly feels like that, because one often manages to get right up to a butterfly and get the close-up shot one wants.

Butterflies are often see sitting in sunspots in the forest (as shown below). Of course these little patches of natural light change all the time, as the sun moves and the trees get shaken in the wind, so the butterflies have to move about. They may be sitting there to keep warm, staying hot enough to fly up and investigate any passers-by. Or they may be positioning themselves to best show off some of their ornaments; like large eyespots (below), which females sometimes use to evaluate the quality of a male.

Great fivering (Ypthima dohertyi) showing prominent dorsal eyespots. Doi Ang Khang, Thailand

The speckled wood

In temperate, forest-dwelling species such as the speckled wood, Pararge aegeria, the males sit and defend sunlit patches of the forest, waiting to rendezvous with passing females and chasing away other males. Of course this is only one part of their habitat, but they fight over this little piece of ground, so we can conclude that it is important to them!

Speckled wood (Pararge aegeriea) in sunspot. Galicia, Spain
Speckled wood (Pararge aegeriea) on leaf. Galicia, Spain

Red Admiral

Red Admirals (Vanessa atalanta) are also territorial, and males will typically set up territories in the late afternoon on prominent landscapes features, such as rocks (below).

Red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) on rock in territory. Galicia, Spain
Red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) on ground. Galicia, Spain

The Archduke

The common archduke (Lexias pardalis) is, as the name suggests, a common species in south-east Asia and beyond. A bit like the speckled wood, they are often found on the forest floor occupying sun spots. In this particular location, there were so many males and females around, I wondered whether it was a rendezvous site, a place where both sexes go to meet.

Common Archduke (Lexias pardalis dirteana) female resting on the forest floor with foliage. Thailand
Common Archduke (Lexias pardalis dirteana) female resting on the ground. Thailand

The Indian oakleaf

The Indian oakleaf, Kallima inachus, is a camouflage specialist; the undersides of the wings closely resemble dry leaves. When it is threatened, it drops down into the dry leaf litter, like this (below) and blends in so well any predator would have a hard job finding it again.

Indian leaf butterfly (Kallima inachus) in leaf litter, Doi Sutep-Pui NP, Thailand.

Here is a close up of the same butterfly.

Indian leaf butterfly (Kallima inachus) Close-up.

The truth is, it is an extremely difficult thing to do; to find a photograph which includes the butterfly and also gives a good indication of the sort of habitat it likes. Anyway, it was fun to try.

Reference

Dennis, R.L., 2012. A resource-based habitat view for conservation: butterflies in the British landscape. John Wiley & Sons.

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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