Archive for the ‘Zygaenidae’ category

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

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  –


“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).”


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!

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