14 January 2017

Book Review : Butterflies of India

Book Review - BNHS Field Guides
Butterflies of India by Isaac Kehimkar

Description : In his third book on Indian butterflies, Bombay Natural History Society Deputy Director Isaac Kehimkar describes 1,025 species and subspecies butterflies that occur in the Indian subcontinent. His two earlier books, Common Butterflies of India and The Book of Indian Butterflies (2008) had been well received, and this third book takes it to another level, covering a much larger number of species than previously featured.

Two earlier books by Isaac Kehimkar

Descriptions of the butterflies are illustrated with colour images of specimens by Isaac and over 50 contributors from Pakistan, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Thailand who shared their photos to cover the wide range of species featured in the book. The book also includes life histories of different butterfly families and their adaptation techniques. Besides highlighting the rich biodiversity of India's butterfly fauna across a wide biogeographic expanse in the subcontinent, this book is a highly enjoyable guide for nature lovers. Isaac Kehimkar discusses the biology and behaviour of butterflies, as well as butterfly watching, photography, rearing and gardening to attract them. Written by a popular expert in the field, the latest Butterflies of India is another great effort by Isaac and will no doubt be another best seller that will advance the appreciation and knowledge of India's butterfly fauna.

Product Details : xii + 528 pages; 5-3/4 x 8-1/5; ISBN : 9789384678012 ; hardcover ; published by Bombay Natural History Society, Mumbai, 2016.

The butterfly-man of India, Isaac Kehimkar © Paresh Churi

About the Author : Isaac Kehimkar joined the Bombay Natural History Society as a volunteer in 1978, and since then has been lending his expertise to the Library, Publications, Public Relations and Members' programmes. Currently, he is the Society's Deputy Director (Natural History). He is a Fulbright scholar and recipient of the Sanctuary Green Teacher Award in 2014, and Kirloskar Vasundhara Green Teacher Award in 2015. This is his third book on butterflies of India.

Book Review : I wrote a review of Isaac's The Book of Indian Butterflies back in Sep 2008. Back then, it was already one of the most comprehensive books about butterflies of the Indian subcontinent available. It featured over 700+ butterfly species/subspecies. Last year, in 2016, Isaac launched his latest work, Butterflies of India, which further outdid his earlier book by raising the bar even higher, featuring 1,025 species/subspecies this time. Six years have passed since his earlier book, and the exponential growth of butterfly enthusiasts and photographers made Isaac's work a lot easier this time around, as he was able to collect photos of rarely seen species. The popularity and increase of photo-sharing on social media groups like Facebook have also made it possible to access previously hard-to-access photos from individuals.

I recall that, some time back in 2010, Isaac was involved in a horrific traffic accident whilst returning from a field trip. He barely escaped with his life and suffered multiple fractures to his leg. But, as he shared in his book, Isaac took the misfortune positively and found the perfect opportunity to start on his new book. He set a target of over 1,000 species/subspecies, which he met and exceeded, with the help of many individuals that he got to know from the Internet and social media platforms.

An interesting section on the biogeography, climate and vegetation is a must-read for those keen on exploring India's butterfly fauna

In the Butterflies of India 2016, Isaac spent quite a lot of effort to cover a good spread of information about butterflies in his 40-page introduction. He covers the mandatory topics like early stages, structure of the adult, biology, behaviour, ecology, mimicry and migration in relative good depth. This is followed by a 20-page section on biogeography. This is perfectly understandable, as the Indian subcontinent is vast and the variety of habitats from sea-level mangrove habitats to the 'roof-of-the-world' Himalayan region is mind-boggling. Details on climate and vegetation across the various biogeographic areas are well-researched and covers just about the right amount of information needed to understand the butterfly habitats and ecosystems in India.

The main section of the book covers the species/subspecies from the six major families of butterflies in the preferred taxonomic order starting from the Hesperiidae and then progressing to Papilionidae, Pieridae, Riodinidae, Lycaenidae and ending with Nymphalidae. I found that the layout of this section is certainly an improvement over the previous book in that the photos are larger and of higher quality, although I would have preferred even larger depictions of each species. However, given the enormity of the task of featuring over 1,000 species, it would have been quite challenging to keep everything in a 500+ page book.

Well-organised layout of the butterfly species pages

Each page features 4 photos of butterflies, although not necessarily correspondingly of 4 different species. This is where there may be a little bit of confusion, because of the attempt to feature the sexual dimorphism of some species and upper/underside differences. This is but a small issue, as one gets to understand the intention of the author quickly as one flips through the pages. The layout throughout the book is consistent, predictable and pleasing, with coloured borders used to separate the families.

The photographers are acknowledged on each photograph and is a more convenient way of honouring the work of these contributors easily, compared to some books where the photographers are acknowledged on a separate page and the reader has to keep cross-referencing the photo with the acknowledgements to see who the author of the photo is.

As one flips through the pages, the reader should enjoy some of the photos of rarities that are seldom photographed in the field. Examples are the Bhutanitis spp., Teinopalpus and many other species that are featured with the red butterfly icon (representing 'rare').

The How to Use the Book pages explains how each page is laid out and the information contained therein

One has to study the "How to use the Book" pages x-xi to fully understand how the species pages are laid out and the legend to the icons. Isaac classified the rarity status into only 3 categories : rare, uncommon and common in this book. Other relevant information icons cover the distribution, wingspan and habitats. Text is minimised as compared with his earlier book, and the concise description is probably adequate to describe the key features of each species of butterfly.

Some tips on butterfly gardening

The final section of the book covers butterfly photography and watching, gardening and conservation as Isaac talks about his experience in the field, his favourite photographic equipment and how to attract butterflies to your own home garden. The glossary of terms used in the book and the main index of common names and scientific names are also useful features as one tries to locate the butterfly species.

Isaac's definition of wingspan of a butterfly

There have been many discussions about a butterfly's wing dimensions and how these dimensions should be depicted. There are differing schools of thought, and one, advocating "wingspan" often runs into definition challenges. In Isaac's definition, the wingspan is the [straight distance between the apices of the two forewings of a preserved specimen that has the inner edge "dorsum" of the forewings at an angle to the body.]

How butterflies are typically set in a scientific collection (with the dorsum of the forewing at right angles to the body)
Source : Fleming Collection @ Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, Singapore

This raises some questions, as the "angle" was not defined, and changing this "angle" changes the "wingspan" of the butterfly. Also, as shown in Isaac's example, I have rarely seen preserved specimens in entomological collections set in this manner. Specimens in most scientific collections that I have come across, shows the dorsum perpendicular to the thorax. Perhaps it may cause less confusion, if the forewing length is used to give an indication of the dimension of a butterfly's wing, as the measurement from the base of the wing to the apex does not change, irrespective of how the wings are set in a collection.

Isaac must have spent a lot of time in researching, writing, proof-reading and designing his book this time. But as any author will quickly acknowledge, there is often the "oopsie" moment when an error is inadvertently overlooked. I challenged myself to look for some errors which I could contribute to Isaac's next effort, perhaps? It took me quite awhile and I had almost given up, but I did find something that Isaac may want to review and consider.

The Indian Cabbage White (Pieris canidia) is not known to be distasteful to predators nor display aposematic colouration.  However, the Large Cabbage White (Pieris brassicae) is a known distasteful species in research literature.  

The "error" if I may venture to call it that, can be found on page 31 of the book under mimicry. When I was browsing the book, I was intrigued to see that the Indian Cabbage White (Pieris canidia) to be a distasteful "model". As this species can also be found in Singapore (where I have come across one instance where I saw a Yellow Vented Bulbul with a Cabbage White in its beak), I cross-referenced several websites and books to ascertain if there was any research done to prove that this species displays aposematic colouration and is indeed distasteful to predators. I could not find any. Perhaps Isaac meant to feature Pieris brassicae (Large Cabbage White) instead?

A butterfly friend and a gentleman, Isaac Kehimkar, at work

All in all, I enjoyed reading Isaac's book and it is indeed a great effort on the part of this 'butterfly-man' from Mumbai to complete such an impressive work for experts and amateurs alike. His latest book will, no doubt, be another best seller for students of Indian butterflies and for the global community of butterfly enthusiasts. I had the privilege of meeting Isaac in person, many years back when we met in Penang, Malaysia, and it would be hard to imagine anyone not easily feeling comfortable in the company of this affable, soft-spoken and courteous gentleman. So, well done, Isaac, and I look forward to your next book!

Text by Khew SK : Photos from the book by Isaac Kehimkar. Photo of Isaac by Paresh Churi

07 January 2017

Butterfly of the Month - January 2017

Butterfly of the Month - January 2017
The Common Yeoman (Cirrochroa tyche rotundata)

A male Common Yeoman basking in the sun with its wings opened flat

As the last strains of Auld Lang Syne fade away, and the raucous "Happy New Years" subside amongst the crowds of new year gatherings all around the world, we are now in the year 2017. For many of us, it's back to work/school or the usual grind, as we face the coming year with anticipation (and good measure of trepidation), considering the uncertainty in the world that we live in today.

A female Common Yeoman

For the optimists, it's just another year ahead, where many opportunities abound. The Singapore GDP grew an unexpected 1.8% for 2016, despite talk that the economy had slid into recession. Perhaps there is indeed some optimism ahead, but economists continue their predictions of a slowdown and 'strong headwinds' that will have adverse effects on Singapore this year.

The world is also watching what happens in the US, when President Donald Trump steps into the White House later this month. Of interest to those of us over on this side of the globe would be the changes in US foreign policy and how it would affect ASEAN and the rest of Asia. Already, Singapore was beginning to feel like a caterpillar beneath two stomping pachyderms towards the end of last year. Who knows what 2017 will be like?

For the first month of this year, we feature a bright coloured butterfly to reflect the optimism that we should start the year with. Our Butterfly of the Month is the Common Yeoman. This species is a new discovery in Singapore, having been first observed in June 2015. How this fulvous orange butterfly suddenly appeared in Singapore is still a mystery. The small colony of the Common Yeoman continued to be seen for a few months and there were several generations observed.

The Common Yeoman is orange on the upperside, with a thin black distal margin and black sinuate marginal and sub-marginal lines. The underside is pale silvery white with silvery transverse band on both wings. The band is narrow and roughly uniform in width. This characteristic band distinguishes this species from other similar-looking and related species in the genus.

The species is not uncommon in Malaysia, and has been observed as close by as the Panti Bird Sanctuary, near Kota Tinggi in Johor - some 60km drive from Woodlands Checkpoint in Singapore. It is also likely to be in the forested areas nearer to the Causeway and may have migrated over to Singapore in recent times.

The Common Yeoman is active and often always on the move, fluttering restlessly at treetops, amongst shrubbery and occasionally coming down to feed on flowering plants or to puddle at damp spots along footpaths and leaf litter. The behaviour of the Common Yeoman is reminiscent of the Leopard (Phalantha phalanta phalanta).

A Common Yeoman takes cover under a leaf with its wings folded upright

Occasionally, when alarmed, the Common Yeoman also displays a similar behaviour to its closely related cousin, the Banded Yeoman (Cirrochroa orissa orissa), in that it will fly and hide on the underside of a leaf with its wings folded upright.

A male Common Yeoman puddling

The full life history of this species has been documented in Singapore. Its host plant is Hydnocarpus castanea and alternatively, Hydnocarpus alpina both from the family Achariaceae. The host plants are cultivated selectively at our urban parks and the Common Yeoman should be looked out for when they visit these plants to oviposit. Perhaps NParks may consider cultivating the two host plants more widely in our parks and even nature reserves to attract and sustain this species in Singapore.

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Khew SK, Jonathan Soong and Horace Tan

31 December 2016

2016 - Looking Back...

ButterflyCircle 2016 - Looking Back...
The Year in Review

2016 will probably be remembered as a year of surprising disruptions around the globe. It was also a year in which many talented musicians and artistes left us, leaving only fond memories of their achievements in music, film, art and so on. As I pen this final blog article for 2016 on the last day of the year, we take a look at the year's worth of information that was shared with the nature and butterfly-loving community.

The year started out pretty well for the butterflies, and was admittedly much better than 2015. However, there seems to be a perceptible decline in both numbers and diversity in Singapore compared to, say, a decade back. The environmentalists will probably point at the irreversible damage done by the relentless development across the island.

But then again, there are promising signs preserving more greenery in our environment and efforts in habitat enhancement and biodiversity conservation initiatives. I recall in the mid 1990's when I was doing butterfly surveys for the National Parks Board, the Plain Tiger (Danaus chrysippus chrysippus) was actually quite uncommon! The intentional planting of its caterpillar host plants in urban parks and gardens has made this species quite common today, and one can regularly see this pretty butterfly fluttering slowly in our parks and gardens.

Could climate change be another factor? After all, we did experience the 'hottest day' on record here (and globally) in 2016. With the constant increase in average ambient temperatures, how would the butterflies' ecological survival be under threat? Fortunately, the annual scourge called the "haze" didn't affect us much this year, as it appears that some concerted effort by the Indonesian government did some good to minimise the burning of forests by large corporations driven by commercial gain.

A butterfly survey at Pulau Ubin in 2016

In our review for 2015, we take a look back at the key activities that ButterflyCircle contributed to - from butterfly education, conservation and awareness-promoting activities. Our efforts continued to feature prominently in collaboration with NParks and community activities. This year, our buddy group from Nature @ Seletar Country Club lent a much-needed helping hand to our activities.

Our social media platform, the Butterflies of Singapore FaceBook Group, continues to be very active, with members from all over the world coming in to share their photos and passion for butterflies. Membership is almost 6,500 on the group, and there are many daily posts from enthusiasts from all over. The sharing and learning is useful to everyone who is keen to find out more about butterflies.

ButterflyCircle's forum is still maintained to store a repository of information, photos and discussions all the way back to 2004 when it was first started. Despite not being as active as before, historical discussions and identifications of new discoveries are useful to look back on for reference, as new information surfaces. We have to thank Dr TL Seow, whose expertise and keen eye for details has helped in a big way, in the identification of cryptic and hard-to-ID species. Thanks also to Anthony Wong, who helped set up the forum and maintaining it all these years.

The Butterflies of Singapore Blog continued to be a repository of butterfly-related articles which shared information, not only with the community in Singapore, but around the world . The blog, now into its 9th year, has featured over 800 informative articles to anyone with more than just a fleeting interest in butterflies - from biology to ecology to life histories to plants and photography.

To have the endurance and determination to maintain the blog takes a lot of effort. The research, sourcing for and selecting photographs, composing and writing takes quite a bit of single-mindedness and focus. Maintaining a steady flow of at least one article per week for 9 years is not easy. This is where I must always acknowledge the help of Horace Tan, who has penned so many articles in this blog, especially for his ever-popular life histories series.

The regular Butterfly of the Month series continues into its ninth year in 2016, and has thus far featured a total of 110 butterfly species. Every article features multiple photos of each species (featuring the excellent work by ButterflyCircle members) with a write-up that weaves in personal stories and observations, and more detailed descriptions of the feature butterfly of the month.

Our early stages expert, Horace Tan added nine more detailed and meticulous documentation of the life histories of Singapore butterflies this year. A total of 193 fully documented life histories are now featured on this blog - an awesome digital library of the early stages of butterflies that are "made in Singapore". Work on Vol 2 of the Caterpillars of Singapore's Butterflies is in progress.

Horace's series on the larval host plants of butterflies continues in 2016, with the detailed documentation of 7 local host plants that the caterpillars of various species of butterflies feed on. Each article comes with more detailed botanical data on the plant, as well as how the plant serves as a host for the caterpillars of various butterflies.

Two favourite butterfly nectaring plants in Singapore

We also featured two species of our butterflies' favourite nectaring plants - the Spanish Needle and Singapore Daisy. Both are considered "invasive weeds" but nevertheless packed with nectar that our winged jewels love. These two plants are found more commonly than before, as creators of new butterfly gardens in Singapore add them to their palette of butterfly-attracting plants.

ButterflyCircle's overseas outing group shots in 2016 (Beer usually features prominently at our meal sessions)

ButterflyCircle group outings also brought members to Fraser's Hill, Chiangdao, Betong and other places further up north. It has always been exciting to photograph new species and for that moment of euphoria when encountering that 'lifer' amongst the rarities that can be found in the forests of our neighbouring countries.  Special thanks, as always to Antonio our friendly Italian giant for facilitating our butterfly tours in Thailand.

Nature @ Seletar CC and ButterflyCircle at FOB2016

Our community engagement and education activities continued in 2016. This year, with added reinforcements from Mr Foo and his enthusiastic bunch from Nature @ Seletar CC group, we co-participated in many surveys, outings and talks. The 5th Festival of Biodiversity was helmed by Mr Foo and his gang, who put up a butterfly ID station as part of the activities of FOB2016.

Group outings and surveys in 2016

Together, ButterflyCircle and Nature@SCC also participated in the OBS Ubin Field Survey, Ubin Day 2016, a "Planting for Butterflies" talk at NParks' Parks Festival in November and the Ubin BioBlitz survey in early December. It was also encouraging to see the younger generation who are passionate about nature conservation and green issues, coming forward and being more active in environmental protection initiatives and projects.

Some of our featured butterfly watching/photography locations in Singapore

In our Butterfly Photography locations in Singapore, we introduce 4 good destinations for butterfly watching and photography this year - Seletar Country Club, Gardens by the Bay (Meadows), Fusionopolis North and Upper Seletar Reservoir Park. A separate article also discussed the "fall" of a previously good butterfly garden at Alexandra Hospital, which deteriorated badly due to the use of pesticides and neglect (from the butterfly habitat point of view).

Two articles about butterfly photography were also posted in 2016, as a primer to introduce butterfly photography to the community. These two articles featured the hardware that are used by ButterflyCircle members to capture the beauty of butterflies in scintillating and minute detail. More articles are being prepared and will be presented next year.

Latest discovery of the Dark Jungle Glory with indisputable evidence by Asst Prof James Lambert of the NIE

In terms of species addition to the Singapore checklist, a paper that is jointly written by Anuj Jain is currently under review and should be available in the scientific journal Biotropica in the coming year. In the paper, more species (mainly vagrant or single-sightings) were added to the checklist. One more species found in 2016, by Asst Prof James Lambert was a dead Dark Jungle Glory (Thaumantis noureddin noureddin) in Nanyang Technological University.

Some of the new additions to the Singapore Checklist in 2016

Over the years, Dr TL Seow has helped us identify a number of cryptic Arhopala and Hesperiidae and the following will be added to the checklist together with the larger species found in 2016 :

  1. The Bright Oakblue (Arhopala sublustris ridleyi) - bred by Horace Tan and ID'ed by Dr Seow TL
  2. The Large Cornelian (Deudorix staudingeri) by Anuj Jain
  3. The Purple Spotted Flitter (Zographetus ogygia ogygia) - recorded by Jerome Chua and Jonathan Soong in Sep 2012 and ID'ed by Dr Seow TL.
  4. The White Club Flitter (Hyarotis microsticta) by Yong Yik Shih
  5. The Ganda Dart (Potanthus ganda ganda) - spotted as early back as in 2011 on BC's forum and identified by Dr Seow TL.
  6. The Dark Blue Tiger (Tirumala septentrionis septentrionis) - finally a photographic evidence by Chung Cheong although this species has been seen before, but with no photo/specimen record.
  7. The Dark Jungle Glory (Thaumantis noureddin noureddin) by James Lambert
With these additions, further sightings and/or voucher specimens are necessary to validate their status in Singapore, under the paper's definitions of extant, migratory or vagrant. Although in the cases of the Bright Oakblue, Purple Spotted Flitter and Ganda Dart, these three are probably resident species which were overlooked due to their cryptic appearance. With these additions, the Singapore checklist now records a total of 331 species (up from 324 in 2015).

Two new cryptic Potanthus species - possibly P. juno (top) and P. mingo (bottom) which requires further investigation before being added to the Singapore Checklist in due course

There have been other cyptic Potanthus spp. that have been identified by Dr Seow TL as P. mingo, P. confucius, and P. juno, either bred or photographed and discussed in ButterflyCircle's forums, but we will leave these species out for the moment, until we have researched more into their IDs, and these, together with some Arhopala may be added to the checklist after further validation in due course.

Let's leave the bad memories of 2016 behind...

And on this final day of 2016, we look back at a rather tumultuous year with mixed feelings and wait in anticipation of a better and more peaceful 2017 ahead. I would like to take this opportunity to wish everyone a resounding...
Happy New Year
... and may the world be a better place for everyone in 2017!

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Chng CK, Chung Cheong, Antonio Giudici, Huang CJ, Khew SK, James Lambert, Simon Sng, Jonathan Soong and Horace Tan