My association with butterflies goes way back; it began with observing fluttering butterflies in my backyard in Bombay. Many butterflies such as Common Crow (Euploea core), Common Grass Yellow (Eurema hecabe) and Common Mormon (Papilio polytes) used to visit a small patch of land that we had left to be grown wild with native herbs, shrubs, and creepers, in the bustling metropolis. As a young, enthusiastic child, I wondered where these butterflies came from. Where do they lay their eggs? And most importantly, how many species are out there and what could we do to attract more of these butterflies to my backyard? I am sure that if you are a nature lover, you too would have come up with these questions at some point or the other.
To find an answer to these questions, I began to observe these butterflies and photograph them. On one of these observational bouts, I saw a Common Crow butterfly laying eggs on a cluster fig (Ficus racemosa) tree. I was very excited to see such an event and I brought the egg back home to see its development and study the life cycle. The egg hatched and a caterpillar emerged out of the egg. It was very tiny when it hatched, but in no time, it grew almost ten times its size into a beautiful orange and black banded creature with long tentacles jutting out from its body. It pupated, and after a few days, a beautiful butterfly emerged from the chrysalis.
I took it up as a hobby to observe butterflies and their caterpillars. I decided to document the butterfly species and their caterpillars that I could find in my own backyard. I would head there to observe butterflies every morning, as that was the time when they were most active. I used to occasionally find caterpillars or see butterflies lay eggs on herbs, creepers, and trees, which I would collect and bring back home to observe. I soon realised that each butterfly has a specific host plant, and the butterfly female will search for these host plants to lay her eggs on. Some butterflies lay eggs on multiple plant species and they are known as polyphagous (poly – many, phagous – feeding or subsisting on a specific food), while those butterflies that lay eggs on only one plant species are known as monophagous species.
When I was making these observations, I saw an interesting behaviour performed by female butterflies searching for host plants. The female butterflies hovered over or near the host plant or a plant that looked very similar to the host plant. They would almost never lay eggs immediately. After carefully inspecting the plant for some time, the female would slowly descend to one of the shoots or leaves of the plant and make a gentle scratching action with her leg. When I read more about this topic, I learnt that the female makes a small scratch on the surface of the leaf and this action releases plant volatiles from the leaves. The females perform this final check to ensure that the plant is the correct host plant for their larvae.
My hobby took a more serious turn when I decided to study butterfly behaviour and document the diversity of butterflies in the Western Ghats. I was in BRT Tiger Reserve, Karnataka for about two years to study the impacts of the invasive weed Lantana camara on butterfly behaviour. During my time there, I saw one of the most beautiful butterflies up close – the Southern Birdwing (Troides minos). One of the most charismatic species found in the Western Ghats, the Southern Birdwing is the largest butterfly in India.
I was determined to see and photograph the caterpillars of the Southern Birdwing during my stay in BR Hills. I read literature and butterfly books to find out the host plants for this butterfly and discovered that the Southern Birdwing, Common Rose, and Crimson Rose lay eggs on a creeper belonging to the family Aristolochiaceae.
While I was reading about the host plant, I figured out that many of the plant species mentioned in the list, such as Aristolochia tagala and Aristolochia indica are endemic to India and are not very common in all habitats. This made the search for the plant and butterfly caterpillars even more difficult. I asked my field assistant if he had seen the creeper and showed him some photos of the plant and flowers too. He said that it is called Ishwari hambu in Kannada and that he had seen it in an evergreen forest patch near a stream. We decided to trek there the next day, as I was very excited to see the plant, and the caterpillars, if they were present on the plant.
We headed out early in the morning and the forest was bustling with butterfly activity. We saw a lot of beautiful species on the way, like Common Cerulean (Jamides celeno), Common Banded Peacock (Papilio crino), Red Helen (Papilio helenus) and the Rustic (Cupha erymanthis). As we approached the stream, a lot of butterflies had gathered on the moist mud banks of the stream for mud-puddling. Mud-puddling is an activity performed by butterflies wherein they gather on moist mudbanks to feed on salts present in the soil. I saw a pair of Common Map butterflies (Cyrestis thyodamas) and was very excited to see these delicate and beautiful butterflies at an arm’s distance. What was interesting about this observation was that they were on the mud banks, but they were not mud-puddling. They were feeding on a dead crab! Yes, butterflies don’t just feed on nectar, but also on carrion, tree sap and rotten fruits. We spent some time observing these butterflies and moved on to search for the host plant of the Southern Birdwing.
After searching for some time, we found a big patch of shrubbery covered with an Aristolochia creeper. We looked for caterpillars and eggs, and to our surprise, we found not just Southern Birdwing caterpillars but also caterpillars of Common Rose and Crimson Rose. There were a few pupae too. It was interesting to observe them out in the forest. Just as we were about to leave, we saw a Southern Birdwing female descend from the tree canopy and hover near the Aristolochia creeper. It was searching for a suitable leaf to lay eggs on. It continued to hover over the creeper and finally, after 10-15 minutes of searching, laid a bright orange egg on the stem of the creeper. It was a very satisfying and delightful experience for us. We trekked back to our base camp, taking back lots of memories from the forest and some unforgettable natural history observations too.
Natural history illustrations provide insights into animal behaviour and their ecology. I have been using my field experiences and observations to portray butterfly natural history through art. I decided to illustrate the Southern Birdwing life cycle based on my observations in the wild. In nature, it is very difficult to observe, photograph or even film all behaviours and life stages in one go – for example, eggs, caterpillars and pupae in the case of butterflies. Art can bridge this gap and one can draw attention to important behaviours, cryptic life stages or the more charismatic life forms in one picture. I have used some of the illustrations I have been making in this article to explain the life cycle of butterflies, and in the future, I plan to make more such illustrations explaining the mysteries of butterflies and their behaviour.