Home | Biodata | Biography | Photo Gallery | Publications | Tributes
[Back to Nature Study List]

Nature Study

Butterflies of Tambaram
 The Madras Christian College Magazine, Vol. XLVll, 1978
P. Dayanandan, M. Gladstone and Gift Siromoney

One butterfly is enough fascination. But we have 70 of them recorded on our campus ! One good look is all one needs to learn to identify many of our butterflies. The reward could be a lifetime enjoyment. One can recognize each species, like an old friend, in predictable places and on predictable plants. Yet, the challenge can be amazingly complex. There are those females that look so very different from the male species. Also, the females of the same species can assume different forms. They even look so much like an entirely different species of a different family that one has to catch and scrutinize their wings or body colour to properly identify them. Thus one does not have to collect butterflies in the jungles of South America to observe this phenomenon of mimicry. We have enough examples of Batesian models and mimics. And then, when one has identified all those winged beauties, there are as many larval forms and as many different eggs to go after.

The uninitiated may find the flight of a butterfly or its choice of a plant meaningless. But the relationship between a butterfly and a plant reveals an ancient story. For no butterfly evolved in isolation, and neither did a plant. Today we observe the continuing story of butterfly-plant co-evolution that started several million years ago. Our campus tells this ancient story as much as any other paradise for butterflies.

We present in this article an account of some of our common butterflies. Thirty-two illustrations are provided so one can compare a specimen with the illustrations for identification. The reader should also refer to the two previous publications on the campus butterflies for additional information (Siromoney:  ' Butterflies of Tambaram ', MCC Magazine, March 1963 and Siromoney :  'Butterflies of Tambaram : A Check List ', Scientific Report No. 35/78, Department of Statistics, MCC, 1978. Satyamurti's     ' Descriptive Catalogue of the Butterflies ' (Government of Madras, 1966) should be consulted for coloured plates and descriptions of butterflies of South India.

About 870 species of butterflies are recorded from the Indian Region. 285 species are recorded in South India. All Indian butterflies are grouped into 10 families (15 families of butterflies are known in the world). On our campus, 70 species are recorded to-date and these fall into eight of the ten Indian families. The families Amathusidae (Duffers) and Erycinidae (Club Beaks) have not been recorded so far. The remaining eight families are described below. It should be borne in mind that not all the common. butterflies are illustrated or described. In fact no illustrations are provided for members of the families Lycaenidae (Blues) and Hesperidae (Skippers).

Family Papilionidae: The Swallowtails.  Figures 1 to 10.

Of the 19 species recorded in South India, 9 occur in our Campus. There is at least one record of finding the largest Indian butterfly, the Common Bird-wing on a stormy day in September 1963. Being the largest and most brilliantly coloured among the Indian butterflies, they are easy to recognise. The third largest Indian butterfly, The Blue Mormon (Papilio polymnestor) can be seen in flight at this time of the year. With its subtle blue colour and large size and bird-like flight, The Blue Mormon must be considered as one of our most beautiful campus butterflies.

The Lime Butterfly (Papilio demoleus) is very beautiful with its intricate patterns on the wing (Fig. 7). The caterpillars of this species feed on citrus leaves. There are four species of Graphium among which the Tailed Jay (G.agamemnon) and the Common Bluebottle (G.sarpedon)  are coloured a beautiful green and blue. These can be seen now, hovering around our Polyalthia trees. A few minutes of observation will reveal the places where these butterflies have laid their eggs.

All the above species as .well as the Black Mormon (Papilio polytes) feed on plants such as Polyalthia, Citrus, Atalantia, Glycosmis, Toddalia and Murraya. Presumably, the chemicals found in these plants do not protect the caterpillars or the larvae from predators. But two of our common Swallowtails, the Crimson Rose (Polydorus hector) and the Common Rose (P. aristolochiae) feed on the poisonous plant Aristolochia indica during their larval stages. Outside the campus, the caterpillars also feed on a related species, A.bracteata. This is supposed to make the adults distasteful to predators. The females of the Black Mormon, whose caterpillars feed only on members of the lime family, mimic the Crimson or Common Rose (Fig. 3 & 4). This phenomenon of Batesian mimicry in these species offers a great opportunity for further explorations. The Black Mormons can be distinguished from the Crimson or Common Rose by the body colour. The former possesses black bodies while the latter are red-bodied.

Eggs and larvae of the Swallowtails can be collected from their respective food plants and they can be identified even at this stage (Fig. 5).

  1. The Crimson Rose, Polydorus hector, X 0.6.
  2. The Crimson Rose, P. aristolochiae, X 0.6.
  3. The Common Mormon, Papiliopolytes. Male X 0.7.
  4. The Common Mormon, P. polytes. Female mimicking the Crimson Rose. X 0.7.
  5. Caterpillars of The Common Rose (above) and The Common Mormon (Young and Old).
  6. The Blue Mormon, Papilio polymnestor. X 0.5.
  7. The Lime Butterfly, P. demoleus. X 0.8.
  8. The Sport Swordtail, Graphium nomius. X 0.8.

  1. The Common Bluebottle, Graphium sarpedon. X 0.8.
  2. The Tailed Jay, G. agamemnon.  X 0.7.
  3. The Common Jezebel, Delias eucharis. Natural size.
  4. The Common Gull, Cepora nerissa. X 0.9.
  5. The Lemon Emigrant, Catopsilia pomona. X 0.8.
  6. The Mottled Emigrant, C. pyranthe. Natural size.
  7. The Common Grass Yellow, Eurema hecabe. X 1.8.
  8. The Common Evening Brown, Melanitis leda. X 0.9.

  1. The Plain Tiger, Danais chrysippus. X 0.9.
  2. The Blue Glassy Tiger, D. limniace. X 0.8.
  3. The Common Indian Crow, Euploea core. X 0.9.
  4. The Common Indian Crow feeding on a Crotalaria pod.
  5. The Double-branded Black Crow, E.coreta. X 0.9.
  6. The Tawny Coster, Telchinia violae. Natural size.
  7. The Black Raja, Charaxes fabius. X 0.9.
  8. The Common Nawab, Eriboea athamus. Natural size.

  1. The Common Sailer, Neptis hylas. X 1.5.
  2. The Great Eggfly, Hypolimnas bolina. Female mimicking the Common Indian Crow. X 0.
  3. The Danaid Eggfly H. missipus. Male. Natural size.
  4. The Danaid Eggfly H. missipus. Female. Natural size.
  5. The Yellow Pansy, Precis hierta. X 1.2.
  6. The Blue Pansy. P. orithya. X 1.4.
  7. The Common Leopard, Atella phalantha. Natural size
  8. The South Indian Cruiser, Cynthia erota. X 0.7.

Family PIERIDAE: The Whites and Yellows. Figures 11-15.

Among the 42 species in South India, 18 are recorded in our campus. These small to moderate-sized butterflies are whitish or yellowish. Some possess bright orange or crimson regions while others are salmon coloured. Their larvae feed on members of the pea family (Leguminosae) and the caper family (Capparidaceae).

The Common Jezebel (Delias eucharis) has spots near the wing margins that appear pink on the upper surface and brick-red on the lower surface. One is reminded of the simple but elegant textile patterns (Fig. 11). The Common Grass Yellow (Eurema hecabe) is perhaps the commonest butterfly one sees on our sidewalks. They have black margins on the otherwise bright yellow wings. They keep close to the ground and are often seen collecting nectar from the Tridax inflorescences. They lay eggs on Leucaena glauca, Sesbania and Albizzia lebbeck leaves. The Plain Orange Tip and the Crimson Tip (Colotis eucharis and C. danae) are also common pierids that keep close to the ground. There are four Emigrants (Catopsilia spp.) in the campus. They are fast fliers and their larvae feed on Cassia fistula leaves. A beautiful Wanderer (Valeria sp.) is among our recently added species to this family on the campus. Mimicry and migratory habits are found in this family in Valeria and Catopsilia.

Family DANAIDAE: The Danaids. Figures 17-21.

Six species are found in our campus while the record for South India is 12. The 6 species are distributed in the two genera Euploea and Danais. These are large butterflies, easy to catch and identify and they are commonly called the Crows and Tigers. The Blue Glassy Tiger (D. limniace) and the Common Indian Crow (E. core) are two of our commonest butterflies and are often found together. Several members of this family are migratory and swarms of the Common Indian Crow can be found settling in our campus between July and September. The Dark Blue Tiger (D. melissa) and the Double-branded Black Crow (E. coreta) are somewhat rarer and are difficult to distinguish from the Blue Tiger and the Common Crow at a distance.

The Common Tiger (D. plexippus) also occurs in our campus. This is perhaps the best known of butterflies and goes under the name of the Monarch or Milkweed Butterfly. It is an American species and is known to be a long distance migratory butterfly. The Plain Tiger (D. chrysippus) is also common and it acts as a model for the Danaid Eggfly (Nymphalidae).

The caterpillars of Danaidae feed on latex containing plants of the families Apocyanaceae, Asclepiadiaceae and Moraceae. The caterpillars are striped and are easy to identify. Eggs and caterpillars of the Blue Glassy Tiger can be collected on Marsdenia while those of the Common Indian Crow can be collected on Nerium and Hemidesmus. The larvae of the Common and Plain Tiger feed on the milkweed Calotropis.

The Danaid males have scent brushes and scent scales. Extraction of the chemicals and their use to artificial attraction of the opposite sexes will be a challenging problem here.

Family SATYRIDAE: The Browns. Figure 16.

Among the 26 species in South India, only two are recorded in our campus. The Tamil Bushbrown (Mycalesis subdita) is a medium-sized butterfly. The Common Evening Brown (Melanitis leda) is a large and quite common butterfly. This species is distributed throughout Asia and even in Australia. Large eye-spots are found on the forewings and these are supposed to scare the predators. The caterpillars of this family feed on grasses.

Family NYMPHALIDAE: The Nymphalids. Figures 23-32.

Seventeen species are recorded in our campus. The record for South India is 47. Nymphalids are medium to large-sized butterflies that come in a variety of colours and patterns. Their caterpillars are known to feed on 34 different plant families. The Black Raja (Charaxes fabius) is a handsome insect and a powerful flier that seeks the Tamarind trees. (Four specimens were caught in the Botany Department last month where they came presumably after the rotting onions). The genus Charaxes is very widely distributed in Africa. The Sailers (Neptis) are widely distributed in Asia as well as in Africa. In our campus there are at least two sailers. The Common Sailer (N. hylas) is low flying and very common (Fig. 25).

The males of the Great Eggfly (Hypolimnas bolina) and the Danaid Eggfly (H. missipus} are easy to identify because of the large white patches on the wings and the adjacent iridescent blue patches (Fig. 27). But the females of these species are prominent mimics of the Common Indian Crow and the Plain Tiger. H. missipus occurs throughout Asia and Africa.

The Pansies (Precis spp.) are found close to the ground and are very beautifully marked. The Blue Pansy (P. orithyia), a common Tambaram butterfly occurs all over Asia and Africa and as a powerful migrator, it probably came originally from the Arabian region.

A new record for the campus and perhaps for the vicinity of Madras is the South Indian Cruiser (Cynthia erota). This very pretty butterfly (Fig. 32) was caught by Dr Gladstone near the College Farm.

Family ACRAEIDAE: The Acraeids. Fig. 22.

This family is primarily African. Two species are known in India, and the only South Indian species, Telchinia violae is found in our campus. This, the Tawny Coster, is one of our commonest butterflies. The caterpillars of this species feed on Hybanthus enneaspermus (Violaceae) and Justicia prostrata (Acanthaceae).

Family LYCAENIDAE : The Blues.

In South India 46 species are known while 12 are recorded in our campus. Although beautiful and quite common, they are small butterflies and are generally difficult to identify. The caterpillars of the Blues feed on 41 different families of flowering plants.

Family HESPERIDAE: The Skippers.

Five Skippers are recorded in our campus while the record for South India is 41. The Skippers are also difficult to identify. However, a detailed study and collection in our campus could result in additional records as well as an easy key for identification.

Our aim has been to introduce some campus butterflies and their ways of living in the hope that many will get interested in this fascinating study of butterflies. Basic information and identification are necessary before we can begin to understand the many complex but interesting problems that involve the butterflies -- migration, mimicry, seasonal activity, longevity, butterfly predators, butterfly pollination, caterpillar-plant relations, mating behaviour, chemical attraction and population dynamics of eggs, larvae and adults. Our campus offers opportunities for all these aspects of studies.

Go to the top of the page

Home | Biodata | Biography | Photo Gallery | Publications | Tributes