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Activity Article: Unforgettable Encounters with Iconic Butterflies of Singapore Botanic Gardens - The Common Rose and Common Birdwing


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Unforgettable Encounters with SBG's Iconic Butterflies -  The Common Birdwing and Common Rose

By Ngo Kang Min

Two areas were covered on this walk - Singapore Botanic Gardens' Healing Gardens and the periphery of Evolution Garden alongside its entrance.  

It was a beautiful sunlit morning when we set off towards the Healing Gardens after a briefing by Simon Chan and Amy Tsang (walk leaders) at the Nassim Gate Visitor Centre.  On the way there, we were greeted by a Common Rose (Pachliopta aristolochiae asteris) near the carpark entrance to the NParks HQ building. Its appearance was sudden but long enough for everyone to take in its charm and understand why it was crowned Singapore's 'National Butterfly' by popular vote. Upon our arrival at the Healing Gardens, another Common Rose made its appearance. We felt privileged to be seeing two Common Roses within such a short space of time! 

At the Healing Gardens, we learnt there were some butterfly host plants and trees within its 2.5-ha hilly grounds where herb plants and trees were grown thematically, relating to their benefit to different parts of the human body. 

We saw several Rukam Masam (Flacourtia inermis) trees which are host to the Rustic butterfly (Cupha erymanthis lotis).  Simon informed us that though the Rustic butterfly is usually considered a forest species, it can now be frequently encountered at SBG because its host plant is around.  Other highlights of lovely butterflies encountered included several Painted Jezebels (Delias hyparete metarete) flying high at the canopy level, Chocolate Pansies (Junonia hedonia ida) fluttering amongst the ground herbs, a tiny Ciliate Blue (Anthene emolus goberus) warming up under the sun, and a pristine male Common Mormon (Papilio polytes romulus) behaving  similarly. We were much delighted by a Tailed Jay (Graphium agamemnon agamemnon), which while resting on a leaf, closed and opened its wings slowly, as if warming up for an imminent take-off!  

We next headed towards the periphery of the Evolution Garden, passing its entrance where several Cycad Blues were seen flying swiftly around the Cycad plants which are its host plants. Our main objective, however, was to look for more Common Rose butterflies at the periphery particularly along a fence where its host plants were known to be planted.

One member, KC Tsang, who arrived earlier at the spot informed us that he had sight of up to 10 Common Roses. We saw at least 5 of them flitting around the fence which was covered with several kinds of climbing vines, including their host plant Aristolochia leuconeura.  On closer examination of its host plant, we managed to see the Common Rose's egg, and three of its caterpillars.

We noted though that the Aristolochia acuminata, also known as the Dutchman’s pipe, which is another host plant for the Common Rose as well as the Common Birdwing (Troides helena cerberus), another iconic butterfly of Singapore, was not present any more on the fence.

However, the presence of the beautiful female Common Birdwing butterfly was very apparent as it flew up and down the fence repeatedly, looking for its host plant Aristolochia acuminata.

More seasoned butterfly watchers amongst our group fedback that the Aristolochia acuminata is the only readily used host plant by the Common Birdwing. In this regard while both the Common Rose and Common Birdwing are identified as 'vulnerable' butterflies in Singapore's Red Data book, the Common Birdwing is in a more precarious position as it is observed to depend on only one Aristolochia species.

Members felt that an appeal should be made to NParks to grow more Aristolochia acuminata if we are to better ensure the presence of this stunning bright yellow and black butterfly in SBG. This butterfly has never failed to enthral its viewers.  It is Singapore's largest butterfly - almost as big as a small bird - hence perhaps its name 'Birdwing' which is apt.  

While we were preparing to take photos of the Common Birdwing, a male Greater Racket-tailed Drongo (Dicrurus paradiseus) swopped down from behind us, grabbed the butterfly with its beak and flew off with its prize! We were so shocked that none of us took a photo capturing the moment, but that memory will stay with us for a long time. The Common Birdwing is said to be poisonous, but the fact that at least one bird species is eating it may mean that the bird has developed some resistance to the poison. The evolutionary arms race between birds and butterflies appears to be on, and whether the Common Birdwing is able to develop more potent poisons is yet to be seen...   

Besides sighting 18 species of butterflies that morning, our walk was also graced by a pair of Common Flameback woodpeckers (Dinopium javanense) - one male and one female, a few dragonfly species such as the White-barred Duskhawk (Tholymis tillarga) and Yellow-barred Flutterer (Rhyothemis phyllis), some crickets and a leaf hopper. 

We also hope we have inspired the three young children from a family who joined our walk to appreciate and embrace nature in their lives. Certainly, we hope that they will continue to see the lovely, iconic butterflies - the Common Birdwing and the Common Rose - along the Evolution Garden pathway fence and elsewhere in SBG, for years to come!