Archive for the ‘moths’ category

Why you (may) dislike Arthropods and I don’t!

4 January 2011

I’m absolutely sure that most of you who see the image above will cringe, shudder or grimace.  These fearsome  (to some) creatures are Arthropods and they are by far the most numerous set of creatures on Earth. Insects, scorpions, crabs, centipedes and shrimp and many others comprise this group. All these have jointed legs – hence their name.

I am talking about a form of “racism” in our human culture – our attitudes to species other than our own.


The wonderful diversity of Arthropods (Image:User xvasquez on Wikimedia Commons, Public domain)

Mammals? Like us, they are warm (blooded), furry, and some arey cute. Birds? Interesting creatures that fly  (I wish I could do that) and listen to how sweetly this one trills. Fish? Only good for a meal! Reptiles? Definitely on the other side of midnight along with arthropods.

The origin of our dissonance with the environment is Mankind’s inherently false belief that we are separate from Nature. Since we are the only species that has been able to think about the future and the environment to meet our future needs, we consider ourselves above and beyond it. Our scientific and technological progress, instead of increasing our knowledge and giving us an enlightened view of things, has made us prideful of our ability to range across our realm from the Moon to the depths of the Ocean, to extract our materials from living and non-living things and to fashion with them things which help us create strange and wondrous things, to increase our population way beyond the natural capacity of the Earth and to mine the natural world for even more.

Even though from time to time, Nature sends us reminders that we are finite and an infinitesimal part, but nevertheless a part in the grand scheme of things, in our pride, like the Gods, we see ourselves apart.

Yet, a barf of ash from a once dormant volcano in Iceland has halted all the air traffic over most parts of Europe. And there is nothing our technology can do to prevent this.

Refusing to believe the evidence of our senses, we lumber on ignorantly, confident in our belief that we, as a species, are superior. That Nature is there at our bid and call for the express purpose of our convenience. That we have conquered Nature. That all its creatures exist at our pleasure. That Man is the Measure of all things.

This attitude, surely an express highway to self-destruction, is the reason that we like some creatures and hate or ignore all the rest.

Why do we dislike arthropods so much? The answer to this must surely lie in childhood.

As an infant, we may have had an experience in which an insect or other creature walked on us, tasted horrible or flew into our face. Our caring elders would have hurried us away from them or warned us against them. Should we have been unfortunate enough to have been stung or bitten by one, it would imprint on our tender psyche forever. As time passes, the looks and the activities of these creatures reinforce the negative images about them. We feel that since they are small, they could fly onto us even perhaps into one of our orifices. Their legs, antenna and spikes on the body remind us of thorns.  Their numerous legs make us imagine how it will feel crawling on our hands!  In the absence of anything positive feedback about creepy-crawlies, we develop an abhorrence of ‘bugs’.

Our belief is now firm and irrational. The “mythos” has overtaken our “logos”. Blind belief instilled as fears as a child supercede rational understanding gained as an adult. It will take a conscious act for us to detach the negative feelings that these creatures engender in us. Since we are Man with a developed brain and a conscious mind, we can do so.

As I did many years ago.

In the words of Dr Steve Kellert (read more here) :

Dr. James Hillman, in a classic essay, “Why we hate Bugs?,” provides some psychological insight regarding why these differences between humans and invertebrate scale and behavior might result in feelings of alienation and aversion. Reviewing a long history of prejudicial attitudes and antagonistic behavior of humans toward arthropods, Hillman remarks, “what we call the progress of Western civilization from the ant’s eye level is but the forward stride of the great exterminator.” Hillman suggests four reasons for human psychological aversion and antipathy toward invertebrates, mainly insects and spiders, found among most people in Western society.

First, he emphasizes the “multiplicity” of the invertebrate world, which he suggests threatens our fondly cherished human notions of individuality and independence. He suggests the idea of a bee hive that can include 50,000 individuals, or a large ant colony of half million ants, or an acre of soil with 65 million insects, or beetle species numbering more than one million, represents a fundamental challenge to our sense of personal integrity and individual oneness. He remarks: “Imagining insects numerically threatens the individualized fantasy of a unique and unitary human being. Their very numbers indicate insignificance of us as individuals.”

A second basis for anxiety and aversion, Hillman refers to as the “monstrosity” of most invertebrates from a human perspective. In this regard, he notes the tendency of most people to associate invertebrates, especially insects and spiders, with metaphors of madness and mindlessness. The human presumption, as noted, is to assume invertebrates as incapable of feelings and rationale reflection, and many common terms of insanity employ insect names, while images of madness often involve visions of insects and other arthropods. As Hillman suggests: “Bug-eyed, spidery, worm, roach, blood sucker, louse, going buggy, locked-up in the bughouse – these are all terms of contempt supposedly characterizing inhuman traits… To become an insect is to become a mindless creature without the warm blood of feeling.” A third explanation Hillman offers for dislike of invertebrates originates in their radical “autonomy” from human will and control. A particularly disturbing aspect of their independence or indifference to human hegemony is the willingness to invade human space in unexpected and uninvited fashions.

Finally, Hillman suggests a disturbing element about invertebrates for most humans stems from the quality of “mystery” surrounding them. As noted, invertebrates represent radically different behavioral and morphological strategies in the struggle for survival which for most humans provokes considerable uncertainty, confusion, and a sense of “otherworldliness.” This sense of mystery can be a basis of curiosity, interest, and even wonder, although the more typical reaction is one of disdain and fear of the unknown. For most humans, invertebrates are largely unfathomable and alien.

Hillman suggests conservation of wildlife, especially invertebrates, will necessitate a far greater understanding of why we react with hostile and negative feelings toward various creatures, particularly insects and spiders. To find our commonality with the animal world in its widest diversity, “we must start (with animals) not in their splendor – the horned stag, the yellow lion and the great bear, or even old faithful `spot’ – but with those we fear the worse – the bugs.”

The above paragraph gives many reasons on a psychological level why people regard arthropods as abhorrent. In the same way, people fear snakes and are blind to the amazing abilities that the snakes have evolved despite having no limbs of any kind.

Arthropods are such wonderful creatures in so many ways, I find it hard to select which facts to tell you about them.

Let me start with camouflage.

Insects (and other arthropods) are nutritious food. They contain valuable protein and reserves of fat in some cases. All kinds of animals eat them – birds, mammals, reptiles, fish, amphibians. Even man eats them – this is called entomophagy.

As an aside, no matter how strict a vegetarian you are, you eat insects every day. Here‘s why?

In order to avoid being eaten insects adopt a variety of strategies, one of which is camouflage. Camouflage is a method of crypsis—avoidance of observation—that allows an otherwise visible organism or object to remain indiscernible from the surrounding environment through deception. Examples include a tiger‘s stripes and the battledress of a modern soldier. The theory of camouflage covers the various strategies which are used to achieve this effect. (Courtesy:Wikipedia)

A Leaf Insect from Wyanaad, India. Here, the camouflage is used defensively, to escape being eaten. (Image:Sandilya Theuerkauf on Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-2.5)

 

A stick insect - shades of Tolkien's ents! (Image:Fir0002 on Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-3.0)

A challenge - find the pink soft coral crab hiding in the soft coral of the East Timor Sea. (Image:User Nick Hobgood on Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-3.0.)

Did not succeed? Okay try again after seeing another photo of this amazing crab – Pink Soft Coral Crab, Hoplophrys oatesii, placed after this one of camouflage used not to hide from predators but to become one! An evolutionary arms race!

 

Camouflage for predation - A perfectly camouflaged jumping spider captures a solitary wasp. (Image:Muhammed Mahdi Karim on Wikimedia Commons, GFDL 1.2)

 

The coral crab now visible on Pink Coral. Image:User Nick Hobgood on Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-3.0.)

Camouflage for predation - A crab spider can change its colour depending on the flower it chooses to live in to catch its prey, in this case a wasp. (Image: Olaf Leillinger on Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-2.0-DE)

The two forms of the Peppered Moth. Earlier the melanistic (dark) form was uncommon while the peppered form was predominant. The increasing soot on trees in England due to the industrial revolution changed the evolutionary dynamics and today the melanistic form predominates as the peppered form has been selected out due to high visibility on blackened bark of trees.

The Peppered Moth Biston betularia (Linnaeus, 1758) is a text book case for evolution. Changes in environment reduced the viability of one morph and increased that of the other. The insect evolved accordingly to have a predominantly larger population of darker morphs.  This graphic of a related Geometer Moth shows how effective camouflage can become a hindrance once the environment changes. Drag the mouse over the background to see it disappear and show just the moth. The moth is perfectly camouflaged on the tree bark but if the background changes, as in the case when you dragged the mouse, the moth becomes prominent and a target instead.

Want to see more?

Insects have many facets similar to the trades of humans.

If you are an underwater diver, you would be interested in the Diving bell spider.

The diving bell spider or water spider, Argyroneta aquatica, is a spider which lives entirely under water, even though it could survive on land. (Image:Norbert Schuller Baupi on Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-3.0)

If you keep cows or sheep, the ant also belongs to your trade guild . Many species of ants “herd” aphids for honeydew. The ants in turn keep predators away and will move the aphids around to better feeding locations. Upon migrating to a new area, many colonies will take new aphids with them, to ensure that they have a supply of honeydew in the new area.

 

An ant guards its aphids. (Image:ViaMoi on Flickr/Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-2.0)

 

Ants feeding on the honeydew of the aphids. Notethe dewdrop exuding from the rear of the aphid. (User:jmalik on Wikipedia, Creative Commons 3.0)

If you are a soldier like me, you will be interested in the army ant. The name army ant (or legionary ant or “Marabunta“) is applied to over 200 ant species, in different lineages, due to their aggressive predatory foraging groups, known as “raids”, in which huge numbers of ants forage simultaneously over a certain area, attacking prey en masse.

Another shared feature is that, unlike most ant species, army ants do not construct permanent nests, an army ant colony moves almost incessantly over the time it exists. All species are members of the true ant family, Formicidae, but there are several groups that have independently evolved the same basic behavioral and ecological syndrome. This syndrome is often referred to as “legionary behavior”, and is an example of convergent evolution. (courtesy:Wikipedia)

 

Some safari ant soldiers on the Chogoria of Mount Kenya make a tunnel to provide a safe route for the workers. (Image:Mehmet Karatay on Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA 3.0)

The amazing number of examples of insects and other arthropods which can illustrate any phenomenon or theme that you want is mind-boggling. Like the scope for thematic collectors in a world of 530,000 or so postage stamps, the many hundreds of thousands of arthropods are more than enough to satisfy the curiousity of any person.

Perhaps the following links will help you to become interested in arthropods and nature :

For children:

For the more enthusiastic:

As a closing quote, let us see another view of the “Age of Man” :

Don’t accept the chauvinistic tradition that labels our era the age of mammals. This is the age of arthropods. They outnumber us by any criterion – by species, by individuals, by prospects for evolutionary continuation.

Stephen Jay Gould, 1988

It is time to shed our inhibitions and accept the notion that these too are God’s creatures and deserve to live on Earth as much you do.

NOTICE : This post has already been published as a Guest Post on Gingerchai.com over here . Special thanks to Lakshmi Rajan for giving a platform for my contrarian views.

Advertisements

Caterpillar of the Oleander hawk-moth on Tagar

4 January 2011

I recently visited friends in Kolhapur who live close to the New Palace. Their boundary wall with the neighbouring building (like all boundary walls) is lined by a few bushes of which one was a shoulder-high Tagar Tabernaemontana spp). I was surprised to stare right into a pair of blue eyes – these were not on a person but on a large caterpillar. I guessed it was a sphingid (hawk-moth) but not sure which it was. Searching the bushes revealed two large moths each about three-four inches long.

The caterpillar with large blue eye-spots

The moth caterpillars were bright green with two large amazingly beautiful blue-eyespots. The sides had a line of white spots arranged as if demarcating a saddle . On the sides it had small vertical black marks.

First I searched  the Hosts Lepidoptera foodplant database with keywords “Sphingidae” (the family to which hawk-moths belong) and  “Tabernaemontana” (scintific name of the genus to which Tagar belongs). The search gave me four likely candidates. Information on Wikipedia and Encyclopedia of Life enabled me to ascertain that it was the caterpillar of the Oleander Hawk-moth (Daphnis nerii)   and not the other three.

Oleander Hawk-moth (Daphnis nerii) (Image:Viern Vaz on Wikimedia Commons)

The English entomologist W.F. Kirby (1844-1912) writes in his “A hand-book to the order Lepidoptera” that :

The moth is very abundant throughout Africa and Southern Asia, but becomes scarcer and more local in Southern Europe, and migrates northward in Central Europe in warm summers.  Single specimens have been captured in the South of England at long intervals.

This is a fairly easy caterpillar/foodplant combination to identify though it is difficult for beginners to distinguish which species of Tagar the hostplant may be.  Tagar belongs to the plant family Apocycnaceae, which contains many toxic plants. Tagar, I assume,  is also toxic and should give the caterpillar/pupa/moth added protection by seqestration of plant toxins. The usual hostplant of the Oleander hawk-moth is Nerium or Oleander which most of us know is poisonous.

Pupa of Oleander hawk-moth (image:Viren Vaz on Wikimedia Commons)

The Oleander Hawk-moth is also a relatively easy moth to find and rear in India. Most of the images seen here are by my friend, Viren Vaz, who reared them on the balcony of his Chembur home.

Notice : This is a version of an email sent to IndianMoths email group which you must surely join if you are interested in Indian moths.

Beautiful but deadly!

26 August 2009

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 blue caught my attention.

The butterfly(?) resting on the underside of a leaf!
The butterfly(?) resting on the underside of a leaf!

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 white emerged. I rejoiced for I had finally come across the most gaudy and colourful members of the Danaids or Crow family – the Blue Crows.

What I thought it was - Spotted Blue Crow (Euploea midamus)
Which butterfly I thought it was – Spotted Blue Crow (Euploea midamus)

Amazing buttterflies, the Blue Crows, like other Danaines, are inedible, fly slowly and leisurely flaunt their prominent markings which shout to all creatures of their poison and in-edibility. Once I had the butterfly cupped in my arms, I looked at it 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 clubbed endings. What I had in my hands was a moth!

The brilliant markings of the deadly moth!
The brilliant markings of the strange mimic 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 dodging flight, not too difficult to catch, when caught it made body movements just like that made by a Crow, right down to the yellow tendrils waving from the tip of the abdomen. It was quite 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, the Fauna of British India, (Moths) volumes, appeared in the last decade of the nineteenth century and was authored by G. F. Hampson.

Fauna of British India (Moths) Vol 1 - G.F. Hampson (1892)
Fauna of British India (Moths) Vol 1 – G.F. Hampson (1892)

But I did not have it at that time. Today it is freely downloadable at www.archive.org.

So I did the next best thing! I  requested identification on Indian Moths yahoogroup. It turned out to be a most interesting query and the moth turned out to be deadly!   Beautiful, but deadly.

Arif Siddiqui in Southeast Arunachal Pradesh responded first. He said that he had spotted the moth just about then and was thinking of  posting online for it’s id when he saw my post.  From Binnaguri to Jairampur, that’s 694 kilometers apart! A very goodly range indeed!

The two places, Binnaguri & Jairampur, where the butterflies were spotted at the same time. 695 kms apart.
The two places, Binnaguri & Jairampur, where the butterflies were spotted at the same time. 695 kms apart. (Image copyright & courtesy Google Earth)

We soon got it identified from Roger Kendrick, the guy in charge of all the Moths of Hong Kong (seriously ;-)). He told us that  –

<quote>

“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).”

</unquote>

Okay, folks, once more for your comprehension, the moth was identified as :-

Cyclosia midama,  Herrich-Schäffer, 1853
Family Zygaenidae or the BURNET MOTHS (Subfamily Chalcosinae)

Disappointed that I had not discovered a species new to science, I decided to read up about “Cyclosia midama”. There wasn’t much. So I decided to read up the Burnet moth family, the Zygaenidae, instead. To my horror I discovered that not only are Burnet moths poisonous but they actually manufacture cyanide in their bodies..

quoting Wikipedia..

Zygaenid moths are typically day-flying with a slow fluttering flight, and with rather clubbed antennae. They generally have a metallic sheen and often prominent spots of red or yellow. The bright colours are a warning to predators that the moths are distasteful – they contain hydrogen cyanide throughout all stages of their life-cycle. Unlike most insects with such toxins, they manufacture these themselves rather than obtaining them from host plants. They are known to have mimicry complexes based on these toxins.”

and even worse….

“Larvae in two subfamilies, Chalcosiinae and Zygaeninae, have cavities in which they store the cyanide, and can excrete it as defensive droplets.”

I had been so cavalier in handling what was potentially a lethal animal. Tough I passed safely through that encounter, I shudder to think that I could have just as easily handled it more carelessly or even brushed a caterpillar….

The undersides, spotted white on black and blue.
The undersides, spotted white on black and blue.

This is a very important point that most naturalists who attain a certain degree of confidence (or is it overconfidence) forget. There are dangerous things out there in the jungle – and many times we don’t even recognise them. Zygaenids or burnet moths are very common in the tropics.  If you are a predator, its a good idea to avoid bright, prominent insects – as this is nature’s way of saying..

Stand off! Approach at your own peril!

Beautiful indeed but deadly!

Image credits –

A Paris Peacock by the Chel River

11 May 2007

Chel River bridge

The most beautiful approach to Kalimpong is not via the direct route from Siliguri via Sevoke and Teesta, but by a quaint winding hill road from Damdim to the newly emerging hillstation of Labha and the sleepy hamlet of Algarah which overlooks Kalimpong from the ridgetop to the NorthEast. We chose this backdoor access for getting to Kalimpong – our first stop enroute to North Sikkim.

Now one doesnt really need to go to Kalimpong to go to North Sikkim but a night halt is preferable because of the long journey from Binnaguri. Kalimpong is more conveniently placed than Gangtok which would require an extra day or more and require you to head much further East than you need. You get the same kind of atmosphere, much better scenic beauty enroute, a shorter trip, and for those interested in plants, many nurseries growing exotic plants. Gangtok has a charm and appeal of its own and is best visited separately, perhaps in combination with the border pass of Nathu La.

For that, one goes halfway towards Tiger bridge till Damdim,  and then you turn right or Northwards. You now leave behind the tea garden, betel-nut, fish-pond and jute type of atmosphere prevalent in the lowlands of the Siliguri corridor. Almost immediately, you pass through Gorubatthan and come to the scenic hamlet of Paparkheti. Paparkheti gives you that old world feeling one associates with sleepy forgotten hill stations. Now, the villages are of Gurkha and Lepcha people living in quaint bamboo houses on stilts. These houses are embellished by masses of wild and cultivated flowers in pots, small strips of garden and in their verandahs. You feel really good, and often the sweet smell of a honeysuckle is encountered as you slow down on a turn. The ubiquitous Tea gardens still co-exists but here they cling to dizzying slopes which have stands of cardamom that give them an exotic look. Far below, a river flows with old-fashioned Bailey bridges to take people to the other side. Wooden log huts now can be seen amidst colourful patches of garden. You cross the Chel river, (actually a fast-flowing rocky stream) by an RCC bridge next to a huge boulder used locally for rappelling. And now you are in fabulous butterfly country.

Spot PuffinJust 500 metres ahead of the Chel river is a small grocery-cum-tea stall-cum-hardware store of the kind found in the hills. A year ago, I had stopped here for a cup of tea enroute to Rhenok.  It borders another mountain stream which is crossed by a small RCC bridge just adjacent to the store. The trees on both sides are very high here, the sun alighting the uppermost branches – high above butterflies can be seen flying about – I wonder what they are? A white which is leisurely opening and closing its wings in the shade turns out to be a Spot Puffin. On the roadside, Common Sailers pose still as statues with wings placed flat.

As I waited for the tea to be prepared, my eyes were suddenly dazzled by a blue and black butterfly flying high in the trees opposite. It was a Peacock, and my first thought was ‘Is this butterfly beautiful, or what?’.  Strong swift wingstrokes across the hillside brought it next to the stream flowing across the road, where it hovered with a rhythmic slow wingbeat and dipped  its large black proboscis into the water. For a few minutes, it kept weaving between the same puddles back and forth, permitting some photography.

Paris Peacock 1
Paris Peacock2The four Himalayan species of Papilio Peacocks are amongst the most colourful butterflies in India. The butterfly hypnotises you into just admiring its bues, greens and maroon-purple peacock-eyes. The mind struggles to understand the pattern of these shimmering colours which keep changing location as the butterfly moves. This is why I find it so difficult to recognise the exact species of Peacock butterfly on the wings. From the photographs I later identified it as a Paris Peacock.

Paris peacock 3On the wing, the butterfly gives different visual treat than it does as a specimen, in the hand or as a photograph. The forewings slide easily over the bright blue patch on its hindwings. The butterfly is instantly transformed into something relatively nondescript and you need to refocus to discern the creature once more. Should the butterfly halt a little longer, more details emerge for appreciation….the beautiful spatulate tails, the green glitter spangle on its wings, a thin green band on the upper forewing which tapers towards the apex. The tragedy with having such beautiful butterflies is, that you can never get enough of them – you see them too infrequently, and you dont get enough time with them when you do.

This place has other dainties too. I wander further away from the roadside towards an abandoned bridge site. A delicate blue damselfly perched on a nettle allows me to approach quite close to admire its beauty.

Damsel fly

The rippling brook invites you by its musical babbling. Suddenly I saw a small white bird bobbing on one of the stones in midstream – it was a Forktail. Tantalisingly, it would allow me to approach close but fly off out of sight a few meters away further upstream. I could glimpse it through the fronds of fern, but by the time I laboured to get in view, it was off again.

Yellow MothA beautiful fat yellow moth is in front of me on an Ageratum bush. It allows me to pick it up and gently examine it. It has a beautiful red upper abdomen which is completely hidden by the wings. Its forelegs are partly red and partly black. It exudes a few yellow drops on my fingers as I place it back unharmed on the leaves. Later, I learn that the moth belongs to the Spilosoma genus of Arctiidae, the Tiger Moth family.

All good things must come to an end – its time to be off again with a memory of Peacocks – on to Labha, Algarah and Kalimpong.
Yellow Moth 2