AN INTRODUCTION TO BUTTERFLIES
de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2007). An Introduction to Butterflies. Volume 02 2007. Wisdom. The Annual Publication of the Chauffeur Tourist Guide Lecturers Association of Sri Lanka. Pages 12-14.
Butterflies and moths are winged insects that belong to the order Lepidotera. The distinction between butterflies and moths is somewhat artificial, since there are no absolute differences between the two. But some general rules of thumb are helpful: butterflies generally fly by day, whereas most moths fly by night; butterflies are generally more brightly coloured; the antennae of butterflies have a club tip, whereas those of moths are generally feathery or thick; and most moths have a coupling mechanism that links the fore and hind wings in flight, which is absent in all butterflies but one.
Sri Lanka has 243 species of butterfly, of which the casual visitor is likely to encounter a good number. Among the more notable is the blue oakleaf (Kallima philarchus). This is one of many whose beautiful colours are concealed when it settles, revealing only the camouflage pattern of the underwings, which exactly mimic a dead leaf. Another to use this trick is the white orange tip (Ixias marianne). Mud sips are good places to observe butterflies, allowing a chance to see rare species such as the five-bar swordtail (Pathysa antiphates), which may join more abundant species like common bluebottles (Graphium sarpedon) and various pierids. Mud sipping is when butterflies perch on the ground to sip dissolved nutrients or minerals in the soil. After the rains, in parks like Yala or Wilpattu you may encounter hundreds of butterflies, mainly whites and yellows in the family Pieridae, clustered around the puddles on the jeep tracks.
Butterflies of the garden
One of the most striking of garden butterflies is the common jezebel (Delias eucharis). Its hind wings are mainly yellow, edged with a series of red cones. This species likes to fly at treetop level, by contrast with the nearly all-white psyche, which flutters close to the ground. Grass yellows are hard to tell apart, but the common grass yellow (Eurema hecabe) is a frequent visitior to weeds. A favourite plant for butterflies is the balu nakuta (Stachytarpheta indica), with its beautiful blue flowers on vertical stalks. The striking tawny coster (Acraea violae), an orange butterfly with bold black patterning, can also show up in gardens. It is the only member of its family – the Acraeidae – in Sri Lanka.
Jak trees attract barons (Euthalia aconthea), which are not as regal as the name might suggest, while citrus trees attract the swift-flying lime butterfly (Papilio demoleus), one of several species in the Swallowtail family (Papilionidae) to visit gardens. The widespread crimson rose (Pachliopta hector), with its bright crimson body, is also often seen in gardens. The blues are never easy to identify, though a palm tree may host the plains cupid (Chilades pandava) also known as the cycad blue. These butterflies are very territorial and swirling aerial duels often take place. The common palmfly (Elymnias hypermnestra) is another butterfly attracted to palm trees; the female can look like a common tiger (Danaus genutia), which is in the Danaidae or Tiger family. Palmflies have a curious habit of running along a leaf when they land, as though rolling on rollers.
Butterflies of the forest
If I had to name my favourite forest butterfly it would be the tree nymph (Idea iasonia). I suspect I would not be alone. These black-and-white butterflies have a habit of floating delicately in the wind like fairies, and whenever I enter Sinharaja rainforest, a few seem to keep me company along the path. The plum judy (Abisara echerius) is a butterfly of the dark understorey, though at some times of year it seems to be happier at the sunlit edge of footpaths, its dark wings showing a beautiful iridescent violet when the light catches them. The clipper (Parthenos sylvia) is a large blue butterfly that flies with a hump-backed appearance. Adopting a similar flight posture is the smaller but more energetic commander (Moduza procris); at rest a broad white band on the upperwing makes this species easy to identify.
The bamboo forests hold a few rare species that are confined to this remnant habitat. These include the Southern duffer (Discophora lepida) and the Cingalese bushbrown (Mycalesis rama). Sinharaja, Morapitiya and Bodhingala are good sites for these rarities. These forests also hold other colourful butterflies such as the cruiser (Vindula erota), common birdwing (Troides darsius) and the blue mormon (Papilio polymnestor). The last two are the largest butterflies in Sri Lanka.
In the highland forests, the species diversity is much lower, as with all plants and animals. Some species, such as the Ceylon tiger (Parantica taprobana), Ceylon treebrown (Lethe daretis), Indian red admiral (Vanessa indica) and Indian fritillary (Argynnis hyperbius), are largely confined to the highlands. Others, such as the painted lady (Vanessa cardui), were once widely distributed but are now hard to see other than at sites such as Horton Plains National Park.
The following books are recommended.
Banks, J. and Banks, J. (1985, several reprints). A Selection of the Butterflies of Sri Lanka. Published by Lake House Investments: Colombo. 34 pages.
Authored and illustrated by John and Judy Banks. Butterflies are arranged by colour and size. A very useful guide for beginners.
d’Abrera, B. (1998). The Butterflies of Ceylon. Wildlife Heritage Trust: Colombo. 224 pages. ISBN 955-9114-15-8
Fairly comprehensive, with good colour plates of specimens. If you are serious about Sri Lankan butterflies you need this book. Out of print in Sri Lanka but the UK edition can be ordered on the net.
de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2006). Butterflies of Sri Lanka and Southern India. Gehan’s Photo Booklet Series. 26 plates (A5). Jetwing Eco Holidays: Colombo. ISBN 955-1079-11-6.
A booklet comprising of 26, A5 sized colour plates with captioned photographs. Covers 96 of Sri Lanka’s 243 described species of butterflies and skippers (Lepidoptera). A pdf of the booklet can be downloaded (free of charge) from stag2.mydemoview.com/jetwingeco.
de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2007). Butterflies of Sri Lanka and Southern India. Gehan’s Poster Series. Jetwing Eco Holidays, Colombo. A1.
A photographic poster illustrating 132 of the commoner species of butterflies of Sri Lanka and Southern India. A lavish poster folding out from A4 format into a size of 8 sheets of A4 (A1). Ideal for a class room or a child’s bedroom.
de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2004, several reprints). Gehan’s Butterflies of Sri Lanka. Poster. Jetwing Eco Holidays: Colombo. 86 cm x 57 cm.
A beautiful, high quality, large format poster with images of 57 species of butterflies.
Miththapala, S. (2006). Butterflies of Sri Lanka for children. Text by Sriyanie Miththapala, photographs by Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne. 152 pages. ISBN 955-99378-0-4.
A good introduction to Sri Lankan butterflies for adults as well as for its intended audience of children.
stag2.mydemoview.com/jetwingeco Has past copies of the Sri Lanka Wildlife e-Newsletter which has accounts on various aspects of the fauna and flora of Sri Lanka and India. Nearly a thousand pages of information are available.
About the author
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne is CEO of Jetwing Eco Holidays (stag2.mydemoview.com/jetwingeco). He writes and photographs on Sri Lanka, especially its wildlife. He is on a mission to create a million birdwatchers by the year 2025.