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Thanks to Keith, Roger, Arif, Vijay and others we have an interesting picture developing of an
Indian Burnet moth called
Cyclosia midama, Herrich-Schäffer, 1853 Family Zygaenidae or the BURNET MOTHS (Subfamily
Burnet moths are poisonous in all stages of life! That is because, unlike most other butterflies
and moths which assimiliate the poison from the food plants as larvae, burnet moths actually
prepare HYDROGEN CYANIDE in their body as part of the normal chemistry.
Hence they are well protected right throughout. They consequently evolved to have bright colouring
and prominent markings both as adults and caterpillars. See :-
These are dangerous, the larva of Chalcosinae can even excrete out and store Hydrogen Cyanide as
Good Lord! And I was so cavalier in handling the beautiful creature without gloves. Thank God I
didnt find and handle the caterpillar. This is a very important point that all of us forget. There
are dangerous things out there in the jungle – and many times we dont even recognise them.
Zygaenids or burnet moths are very common in the tropics. Its a good idea to avoid bright,
prominent insects if you are a predator – as this is nature’s way of indicating, stand off -
approach at your own peril!
The most interesting thing is that it appears inedible danaid butterflies such as the Blue Crow
(Euploea mulciber) have evolved to take advantage of this resemblance. This is called Mullerian
mimicry (to differentiatiate it from Batesian mimicry where a palatable butterfly resembles an
unpalatable butterfly to take advantage of its protection by fooling the predator). For an
explanation of how Mullerian mimicry works, please see :-
It also appears that the larvae of certain Papilionidae such as the Chinese Windmill
”Atrophaneura alcinous”, a species found in Manipur/Mizoram has also evolved to resemble that of
this deadly moth, Cyclosia midama. The moth is mimicked in every stage by one creature or the
Th moth is relatively common having been reported by Vijay & Arif from Arunachal Pradesh and self
in Dooars and is really really beautiful!
It deserves a common name. What should we call it ?
I suggest the
The Blue Beauty is the name given to photos of Earth from space, a delicate-blue water lily and
many works of art/jewelry etc.
The moth is blue, beautiful, brings to mind images of a beautiful woman blue in colour by poison
(shades of Neelkanth).
Beautiful Blue Burnet
Comments please, otherwise I’m going ahead.
With regards from one in love with the Blue Beauty,
It had just stopped raining in the forests southwest of Binnaguri. The sky was overcast. Slowly, the ground absorbed the water which had not flowed away. Under the protective branches of a bush trying to reach high in the shady alcove of the forest, a flash of dark blue caught my attention.
Ah, a lovely butterfly, I thought as it flashed its way to another such bunch of leaves. When I reached near, the wings opened and a gorgeous pattern of blue wings spotted with blue emerged. I rejoiced for I had finally come across the most gaudy and colourful members of the Danaids or Crow family – the Blue Crows. Amazing buttterflies, they…
The Crows, like other Danaids are inedible, fly slowly and leisurely flaunting their prominent markigs which shout to all creatures of their poisonousness and inedibility. Once i had the butterfly cupped in my arms, I looked very carefully. i realised that something was wrong but i couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
Suddenly realisation dawned. The antennas looked strange because they were straight and had no clubs. What I had in my hands was a female moth! Gingerly so as not to harm it, I held it one hand and photographed it with another.
It was really, really beautiful. It mimicked the Blue Crows to perfection; it looked like one. It flew like one. It behaved like one – slow clumsy flight, not difficult to catch, with body constriction just like that made by a crow, right down to the yellow tendrils waving from the tip of the abdomen. It was uit uncanny.
After a while, I released it and after a full day’s outing went back to my room.
Indian moths are hard to identify. There is a tremendous amount of work yet to be one. The only really comprehensive work Fauna of British India, (Moths) volumes appeared in the last decade of the nineteenth century and were authored by G. F. Hampson. But I did not have it at that time. Today it is freely downloadable at http://www.archive.org.
So I did the next best thing! I requested identification on Indian Moths. It turned out to be a most interesting query and the moth turned out to be deadly. Beautiiful, but deadly.
Arif Siddiqui in Southeast Arunachal responded first. He said that he had spotted the moth just about then and was thinking of postng for its id when he saw my post. From Binnaguri to Jairampur, thats 694 kilometers apart! A very goodly range indeed!
We soon got an id from Roger Kendrick, the guy in charge of all the Moths of Hong Kong (seriously ). He was apoplectic. After he recovered, he told us that -
“This looks like the nominate subspecies of a burnet moth (family Zygaenidae, subfamily Chalcosiinae) that goes by the name of Cyclosia midamia, if Endo & Kishida (1999; Day-flying Moths: Chalcosiinae, Epicopeia; Endless Science Information, Tokyo) is anything to go by.
I wonder why people consider burnets as mimics. They are a more primitive group than most larger moths and butterflies – so it would seem logical that they are the original distasteful models that more recently eveloved taxa (especially Danainae) have evolved to mimic (in Müllerian mimicry rings).”
Moth-ers consider butterfly guys to be ignorant, self-important snoots! And with good reason too! I thought that this moth mimicked a butterfly! As per Roger, it was the other way round. This whole family of moths, the Chalcosiinae, is far older than the Danainae subfamily commonly called Crows and Tigers.
Roger mentioned the Chalcosiinae as ‘primitive’. That’s a politically incorrect term now, as I was rudely told on Wikipedia by an irate editor; one should use the term ‘basal’.
An interesting emailversation followed between Roger and Krushnamegh Kunte about whether the butterflies or the moths were the ‘model’. The argument was put that the moths had evolved first. The point was then made that it was not known as to which which group evolved aposematic colouration first. It was submitted that Crows being the more populous ‘drove’ the mimicry, to be countered by the assertion that the moth could have been more poulous in the past. This was met with a repartee that the butterflies being far more numerous today were driving ‘mimicry’ and that the past situation could not e acertained.
With a lot of goodwill, these two experts argued, watched by me with gaping mouth, marvelling at the erudition and knowledge on display.
For those who have been lost so far – a instructive interlude.
Suppose a butterfly eats inedible plants as a larva and ‘sequesters’ those toxins within itself – that’s called being inedible.
At this point, no bird or lizard or whatever knows about this, so it samples this butterfly. The butterfly tastes disgusting and distasteful, so the predator spits it out and vows never to eat this filthy stuff again.
In order to make it easier for the bird/lizard to ‘remember’, the butterfly develops distinctive patterns with bright colours so that once sample, the predator remembers the disctinct markings and avoids it. This develomnt of warning advertisement is called ‘aposematism’.
Such a beautiful