Posted tagged ‘butterflies’

Rare plants need to be propagated to protect them!

16 May 2015

Guest post by Nandan Kalbag

Certain wild plants, native to India, need to be introduced in gardens. One such climber is Oxystelma esculentum. Its common names are Dudhani and Dugdhika (in Marathi) as well as Rosy milkweed vine (in English). It is a medium size climber with very dense foliage. Flowering occurs mainly in Summer & Monsoon.The common variety is with flowers having pink center. However, I als0 found a pure white variety in CME Pune.

It is easily propagated from stem cuttings. It is a host plant for caterpillars of Common Tiger butterfly.

Purple variety of

Purple variety of “Oxystelma esculentum” creeper, also called as “Dudhaani” (Marathi).


White variety of “oxystema esculentum”


Twin pods of Dudhaani, typical of the family it belongs to, Asclepiadaceae


Elongated, narrow leaves of Dudhaani


The Striped Tiger “Danais genutia” is a milkweed butterfly (subfamily Dadiinae, Family Nymphalidae) commonly found in India. It has a variety of host plants, including “Oxystelma esculentum”. (Image credit : JM Garg on Wikimedia Commons, CC-by-SA 3.0)

The caterpillar of the Striped Tiger. Watch out for these on “Oxystelma esculentum”. (Image credit : School of Ecology and Conservation, UAS Bangalore , Wikimedia Commons, CC-by-2.5)

Note: Images other than those with specified credits are copyrighted to Nandan Kalbag.

The Study of Butterflies – by Peter Smetacek

3 January 2011

It is uncommon, even now,  to find online well-written general articles on nature in India, especially about a particular group of organisms. The usual fare from the subcontinent consists of blog posts and a few instructive emails, with the bulk of nature websites providing nothing or next to nothing for the normal reader. It was a pleasant surprise for me to discover recently a series of articles on butterflies, written by one of India’s leading aurelians, to use an old-fashioned world for someone who loves Lepidoptera, i.e. butterflies and moths, Peter Smetacek. Peter lives in Bhimtal, has loved and studied butterflies and moths all his life and is also a taxonomist. He has a small venture for nature trails.


Peter Smetacek identifying insects. (Image credit:Rufford Small Grants. Used under "fair use".)

I could write more extolling Peter and his virtues to you but prefer to let his writing speak for itself. They were written for the open access journal on science education, “Resonance” of the Indian Academy of Sciences.

Each is a short, lucidly written essay, easily understood by any reader and which explores a different facet of the magical world of butterflies. They are :

Smetacek (2000) The naming of butterflies.

Smetacek (2000) Flight, fuels & senses.

Smetacek (2001) Intraspecific variation.

Smetacek (2002) Congregations, Courtship and Migration.

Smetacek (2002) Defences & defensive behaviour.

A teaser from one of these articles…

One tale attributed to ‘Hindu mythology’ tells how Brahma, watching caterpillars gorge themselves, turn into pupae and finally emerge as butterflies in his vegetable garden was filled with great coalm. Thereafter he was sure of reaching his own perfection in the final incarnation. However, no one seems to know where and when this tale originated.

The naming of butterflies

“Resonance” may be open access but downloading the pdfs is problematic especially in the case of the first article where only the first page can be downloaded, and url twiddling in the browser is required to access the other pages. To make things easy for the readers of this blog, I have placed the pdfs in my allotted storage with links for downloading these. Enjoy!

DISCLAIMER: I know Peter Smetacek from the Indian butterfly community, have visited him once in Bhimtal and also corresponded by email. These articles are being publicised by me solely at my initiative based on the merit of the nature writing.  I have not asked Peter for his assent nor been approached by him in this regard.

Violent Butterflies!

6 June 2010

Patterns from Meso-American cultures

I came across something really interesting some time ago – butterfly patterns occurring in the architecture of the Meso-American cultures. However, there is a gruesome twist – they do not represent beauty or peace or harmony but instead represent warfare and bloodshed.

To get a feel of the patterns , an introduction to this unique civilisation on the other side of the world to India is in order.

Meso-America is a region and culture area in the Americas, extending approximately from central Mexico to Honduras and Nicaragua. A number of pre-Columbian societies, such as the Olmecs, Mayas, Aztecs and many others flourished before the Spanish colonization of the Americas in the 15th and 16th centuries.


Location of Meso-America with relation to North and Central Americas.

The region is peppered with the fascinating ruins of great cities such as Teotihuacan, Tikal, Tenochtitlán, Palenque, Chichen Itza and many others. Over time the peoples declined and by the seventeenth century these cultures had vanished or dispersed. The story of the discovery and excavation of these great cities, some of which are completely masked by thick forest, to the extent that you can travel through them and not realise that they are there, while others were still occupied over the centuries after their sack, makes fascinating reading.


A view of the Classic Maya city of Palenque which flourished in the sixth and seventh centuries. (Image:Jabob Rus in Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-2.0)

The Meso-American cultures had a rich heritage. They had a pictorial script – this is one of only five regions in the World where writing originated independently. The Mayans had a number of calenders and an elaborate culture of astronomy. They had elaborate systems of water-irrigation. They also had pyramids but of the stepped kind.


Mayan glyphs from Palenque. (Image:User:Kwamikagami in Wikimedia Commons)

Pyramid in the Mayan city of Chichen Itza, Mexico. (Credit:User:AlexCovarrubias on Wikimedia Commons)

These cultures represent the change of man’s lifestyle from hunter-gatherer to sedentary in the Americas. Corn or Maize, one of our major staple foods was discovered here.


Corn, or maize, descended from a Mexican grass called teosinte. (Image:New York Times)

It is interesting to note that Meso-Americans played a ballgame for over 3000 years. A modern version of the game, ulama, continues to be played in a few places.  It was probably similar to volleyball, where the object is to keep the ball in play. In the most well-known version of the game, the players would strike the rubber ball (weighing 4 kg or more) with their hips, forearms, rackets, bats, or hand-stones. Over 1300 ball-courts of different sizes have been found throughout Meso-America.They resemble a modern day squash court in that they all feature long narrow alleys, with side-walls against which the balls could bounce. The game was played casually for simple recreation, perhaps by children and women too but it also had important ritual aspects. Major formal ballgames would be held as ritual events, often featuring human sacrifice.


Drawing of Aztec ballplayers performing for Charles V in Madrid in 1528 drawn by Christoph Weiditz. (Image:Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain).

The Aztec and Mayan cultures are clouded in our minds today due to their practice of human sacrifice. The Aztecs, in particular, were fearsome practitioners. In the Mayas, human sacrifice was reduced and more ritualistic. For a feel of the horror of human sacrifice, I would advise you to see Mel Gibson’s film “Apocalypto“. The film has raised many controversies but gives a graphic feel of Meso-American life.

There is no doubt that the Olmecs, Mayans, Aztecs, Toltecs, Mixtecs and the other cultures of Meso-America were great cultures. In some aspects, terrible, but definitely great.

Nature and wildlife are a recurrent theme in these cultures. Take the case of Teotihuacanits murals depict many living organisms such as quetzals, jaguars, doves, fish, felines, serpents, shelled animals, shells, sea creatures, water lilies, and seeds. Flowers, shells, and feathers abound.


Kukulcan's Jaguar Throne at Chichen Itza. (Image:Bonomojo & Alvinying on Wikimedia Commons)

The butterfly was an especially popular motif – more than 45 works from sites throughout Puebla and Oaxaca in Meso-America include the butterfly in their compositions. The Courtyard Palace of the Quetzalpapalotl in the center of in Teotihuacan is one such example – thought to have been the royal residence of the city, the Palace of Quetzalpapalotl, the quetzal butterfly, it has a large, square patio, lined with columns decorated with bird and butterfly motifs.

A butterfly motif from Ancient Mexico. (Artist : Jorge Enciso)

The butterfly in Meso-American cultures appears to be symbolically associated with militaristic expansion. The butterfly symbol was worn by warriors as a pectoral or head ornament in Teotihuacan architecture and later carried over into the Chichen Itza culture also. Besides war and warriors, butterflies also represented fire, soul, death, travelers and hummingbirds.

Many Aztec Gods and Goddesses had animal features. In Teotihuacan,  Itzapapalotl,  the great Goddess, is a patroness of warfare; she assumes a butterfly guise and demands sacrifices, both locally and in distant lands.


Itzpapalotl - the Obsidian or Clawed Butterfly. A skeletal figure with jaguar claws and butterfly wings. (

Another minor deity – “Metztli”, ruler of the moon, is depicted as an old man with a giant seashell attached to his back which also sports a pair of colorful butterfly wings.

These then are the highly stylised butterfly wings found in the architecture of Aztecs and other cultures.

Nine Butterfly patterns from Meso-American cultures.

A-B. Clay flat Stamp with butterfly motif from Teotihuacan.

C. Hieroglyphic from the town of Ocuilán, representing a caterpillar with the head of a butterfly.

D-F. Clay flat Stamp with butterfly motif from Azcapotzalco.

G. Incomplete stamp with a butterfly motif containing complex wing patterns from Teotihuacan.

H-I. Clay flat stamp with butterfly motif from Azcapotzalco.

Mexico, which forms part of Meso-America and whose flora is shared with other Meso-American countries, has a rich and wonderful diversity of Lepidoptera (see Mariposas Mexicanas and Nelson Dobb’s web-site).

An interesting book, unfortunately inaccessible to us being in Spanish, has been written by Dr. Carlos Beutelspache, a Mexican lepidopterist,  who has documented the multifarious ways that butterflies and moths were woven into ancient Mexican Cultures. These range from transient and simple uses of the lepidopteran form for adornment of pottery and in featherwork, to deeply religious symbolism hewn in stone. A review is available here.

A likely model for Pattern A - Three-tailed Tiger-Swallowtail, Pterourus pilumnus (Boisduval, 1836). (Image:Nelson Dobbs)


Another model? Mexican Kite-Swallowtail, Protographium epidaus (Doubleday, 1846). (Image:Nelson Dobbs)


The Bloody Spot (Phocides polybius), a beautiful skipper from Mexico. (Image:mariposasmexicanas)

Sadly though, butterflies in Meso-America reflect not aesthetic values as in the civilisations further East across the Atlantic Ocean, but bloodshed, warfare and human sacrifice.

Ironically, the Aztec butterfly may also be considered as symbol of this blog being a curious mixture of butterflies and the life of a military man (though with the violence carefully excluded).

I found the main image of butterfly patterns on this extinct web-site, still existing but abandoned since the mid-nineties. The image was bereft of information - looking up on the internet brought out the gruesome association.

Images: As attributed. Copyrighted images reproduced under “fair use” policy.

Butterflies, beetles and dragonflies declining in Europe!

25 March 2010

The Violet Copper Lycaena helle (Endangered) is a rare and threatened butterfly in Europe. Photo : Chris van Swaay

Habitat loss is having a serious impact on Europe’s butterflies, beetles and dragonflies, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) said today. Nine percent of butterflies, 11 percent of saproxylic beetles (beetles that depend on decaying wood) and 14 percent of dragonflies are threatened with extinction within Europe, the Switzerland-based conservation organization said in a news release.

Read more on Vijay Barve’s Biodiversity India blog post here.

Download the section of the IUCN Red List on European butterflies here.

The situation is far worse in India. Even worse our scientific footprint is so weak, we don’t even have comparable data. God preserve my beloved country’s wildlife!

Image credit : IUCN. Displayed under “Fair use”.

Scaly-winged creatures!

9 December 2009

Post 1 of ‘Learning about Lepidoptera’  Series!

Elaborate colours and arrangements of scales on the wings of butterflies and moths permit beautiful patterns.

If you look at the dazzling colours of butterflies and moths, the last thing that will probably come to your mind, is that its wings are completely covered by scales! Not scales as in the case of reptiles such as snakes or crocodiles, but scales nevertheless!

In fact, the pre-eminent biological characteristic of the group of insects we know as ‘butterflies and moths’ is precisely this – scaly wings! And it is from this feature that the scientific name for this order of insects comes!

‘Lepidos’ or λεπίδος means ‘scale’ and ‘pteron’ or πτερόν means ‘wing’ in Ancient Greek!

Looking closely at the wing, one can see the scales!

Scales cover not only the wings of butterflies and moths! They are also found on the head, body and feet of many moths and butterflies.

The series of images below will help you realise why the scales play so important a role in classifying and naming this order of insects.

Lepidoptera scales are blade-shaped, loosely attached and come off easily without harming the insect.

Lets now magnify some scales and see them very close up! Click on each image to enjoy nature’s fine architecture.

First magnification - Laid like overlapping tiles on a roof. Scales improve the aerodynamic lift of butterflywings.

Second magnification - Each scale can be seen as having ragged edges and intricately structured upper surface.

Third magnification - the long longitudinal ridges can be seen to be connected with very fine ribs. The cuticle contains pigments such as melanins which give blacks and browns. Whites and yellows are usually due to excretory deposits.

Fourth magnification - The upper surface of a scale is jagged and perforate. Blue, green and iridescence is due to the coherent scattering of light by this micro-structure.

Scales cover most parts of the head, legs, body and organs of a butterfly also. A butterfly head magnified to show the scales on the face and proboscis.

Scales not only give beautiful patterns but beautiful variations on basic patterns to different species.

A page from Adalbert Sietz's MacroLepidoptera of the World, published from 1907 to 1935 in 16 volumes.

Image credits : Wikimedia Commons

  1. Common Tortoise shell butterflyBöhringer Friedrich.
  2. Lepidoptera Wing – Karol Kin.
  3. Loose butterfly scales – Jan Homann.
  4. Scanning Electron Micrographs of scales (1 to 4) – SecretDisc. Click the image to go to its Wikimedia Commons source page.
  5. Lepidoptera head with tongueDartmouth College Electron Microscope Facility.
  6. Plate from ‘MacroLepidoptera of the World‘ – Adalbert Seitz.

The bacteria that kills only male butterflies!

23 October 2009

If you think the swine flu virus was scary, this one makes it look like a Fairy Godmother! Fortunately it is restricted to arthropods and as such is harmless to humans.

But introductions first.

You, Wolbachia does not recognise as you are NOT an arthropod. For Wolbachia, we’ll let Wikipedia do the talking :-

Wolbachia is a genus of inherited bacteria which infects arthropod species, including a high proportion of insects. It is one of the world’s most common parasitic microbes and is possibly the most common reproductive parasite in the biosphere. One study concludes that more than 16% of neotropical insect species carry this bacterium and as many as 25-70% of all insect species are estimated to be potential hosts.”

Wolbachia inside an insect cell.

Wolbachia inside an insect cell.

Now this is really mindboggling. When you say 25 to 70% of all insect species we mean between 1 million to four million ”species” as per the conservative estimate of Gaston (1991) That means Wolbachia is a potential infectant of literally trillions of organisms.

Wolbachia is everywhere, you can’t get away from it.

But so what, we did not know anything about Wolbachia till right now. Why bother?

Because Wolbachia is an organism which detests males, and, by a variety of means, systematically deprives a population of males.

Now, like all males, I am sensitive about my virility, gonads, maleness or what you will. So I instantly recoiled with horror to learn about this organism which specifically targeted the male sex for elimination, albeit in arthropods.

It all started harmlessly when I chose a post from “Not exactly rocket science” in the Science Blogs RSS feed in my Google Reader.

The post states that Wolbachia has seriously affected populations of Hypolimnas bolina, a Nymphalid butterfly called as the Great Eggfly in India or the Blue Moon elsewhere.

The male Blue Moon or Great Eggfly

In grave danger – the male Blue Moon or Great Eggfly.

Commonly found in India, the Great Eggfly is extant from Madagascar in the west across South and Southeast Asia to parts of Australia, Japan and New Zealand and even remote South Pacific islands such as French Polynesia, Tonga, Samoa and Vanuatu.

The female Great Eggfly, once infected, cannot mate successfully with uninfected males.

The female Great Eggfly, once infected, cannot mate successfully with uninfected males.

It appears that this butterfly has been affected severely by Wolbachia. In some islands, notably the Polynesian islands of Ua Huka and Tahiti, Wolbachia, which was virtually absent in the past, is common now and consequently, male butterflies are extremely rare here.

Wolbachia are present in mature eggs, but not in mature sperm. Hence it can propogate only thrugh females and not males; hence the reason for the bacteria developing violently anti-male attitudes!

Only infected females pass the infection on to their offspring. Wollbachia acts in four different ways –

* Firstly, it kills infected males.
* Secondly, it causes infected males to develop into females or infertile pseudo-females.
* Thirdly, it permits reproduction of infected females without males.
* Lastly, the bacterium causes cytoplasmic incompatibility between infected and non-infected insects. Wolbachia-infected males are unable to successfully reproduce with uninfected females or females infected with another Wolbachia strain.

Of this, I find the fact that enables female butterflies to mate without males extremely interesting! Some scientists have suggested that parthenogenesis may always be attributable to the effects of Wolbachia. Parasitic bacteria like Wolbachia have been noted to induce automictic thelytoky in many insect species with haplodiploid systems. They also cause gamete duplication in unfertilized eggs causing them to develop into female offspring.

An example of a parthenogenic species would be the Trichogramma wasp. This wasp has evolved to procreate without males with the help of Wolbachia. Males are rare in this tiny species of insect, possibly because many have been killed by that very same strain of Wolbachia.

All this has been proven thanks to the fact that hundreds of pinned, preserved and catalogued specimens of Great Eggflies can be found in today’s museums. These are from all over and from the heyday of collecting (before Independence).

Emily Hornett, a biologist at UCLA, asked the question –

“How have the ratios of male butterflies to female ones changed over time?”

Concentrating on specimens from the Pacific islands, she observed a number of cases where males reduced in numbers as time passed. Since the DNA of these specimens was still viable, she invented a test which detected the gene sequence of Wolbachia in the genome of the dead insects. She found a very high increase in Wolbachia infection with corresponding effect on the ratio of males to females. From her research, it was clear that Wolbachia steadily went from island to island decimating the males.

Surprisingly, she also detected Wolbachia-resistance in today’s individuals and also in the past in the Phillipines and Samoa. There was evidence of a full scale drawn-out battle beteen Wolbachia and its hosts. In one case, resistance to Wolbachia developed over a very short period of time. This is of great import to us.

The infection mechanism of Wolachia is being extensively studied with the hope of employing this mechanism to halt another killer disease in India, this time of humans, namely malaria.

It is also used to kill the worms which cause filiarisis (elephantiasis). The worms require highly toxic chemicals to kill but a simple antibiotic will kill the Wolbachia in them and they’ll just die because of that!

So, in every cloud, there’s a silver lining. Wolbachia’s hosts have very short lifespans – so it is possible to study evolution in action by researching Wolbachia. And it may possibly help us solve the malaria problem.

Read more about Wolbachia on cheshire’s and hotbacteria’s blog!

Din ka raja aur uski praja

12 August 2009

(English:The Day-king and his retinue)

I really like having plants with perfumed flowers around where I live. I plant them whenever we move into a new house. When we moved into ‘Casa Grande’ as my brother and his family refer to the quaint old-fashioned bungalow that we are presently staying in, I had the same sentiments.

(My wife reminds me, that by ‘planting’, I actually mean getting someone else to plant them .)

My father-in-law, the quintessential and ever-obliging gardener, brought two perfumed bushes and a creeper so as to indulge his son-in-law.

The Clematis creeper grew profusely, flowered in all seasons and doused passers-by in clouds of perfume. The Raat ki rani (Night queen, to those who know not Hindi) (Cestrum nocturnum) wafted gentle fragrance into my son’s bed room. But the Din ka raja (Day king) (Cestrum diurnum) though growing tall did not quite live upto the reputation of its nocturnal relative, planted barely twenty feet away.

It was not his fault really. Cestrum diurnum flowers in the rains in India and yours truly was quite ignorant of this. The rains brought flowers but no visitors. I was disappointed.

'Din ka raja' flowers in front of 'Casa Grande' in the rains!

'Din ka raja' flowers in front of 'Casa Grande' in the rains!

One overcast day, around ten in the morning, there was a break in the clouds, and some shafts of golden yellow sunshine poured through. All at once there was a riot of  insect life, buzzing all around the flowers.

The most colourful were the Common Jays (Graphium doson). I had seen them very often in my garden fliting up and down the Mast trees (Polyalthia longifolia). Common Jays are common in CME whereas there are very few records, if any, in neighbouring Pune. It is a electric blue butterfly which can easily be mistaken by beginners as the Common Bluebottle (Graphium sarpedon).

Common Jay - most colourful of all!

Common Jay - most colourful of all!

There were many Common Gulls (Cepora nerissa) around. The bushes just swerved with them. But were they flighty? I hardly had time to focus before they were off. Add to that, their folding their wings.

Common Gull and a wasp!

Common Gull and a wasp!

Another visitor – the Blue Tiger (Tirumala limniace).

Blue Tiger suspended but sipping!

Blue Tiger suspended but sipping!

Besides the butterflies, there were wasp, flies and bees too.

This looked like a fly through the viewfinder till blown up on a computer for identification. It turned out to be the head of a Common Emigrant (Catopsilia pomona), the green wings had seemingly merged in the background.

Not a fly. Common Emigrant (Catopsilia pomona).

Not a fly. Common Emigrant.

Besides this were Lycaenids or blues, Common Jezebel (Delias eucharis) and the Tailed Jay (Graphium agamemnon).

My cup runneth over….