The twig

“Hey, look what we had missed!” exclaimed our friend. We were on a walk along the muddy path to the bridge which connected the 2 beautiful islands at River Tern Lodge, Bhadra. A walk on a path may sound normal to some, romantic to a few others, routine to the rest. But nature has many a surprise in store and a walk is always interesting and fun. We saw a pair of grasshoppers mating; and they were jumping to different locations while “on the job” 😉 A few meters ahead we found seeds of a tree that had the same fragrance as soap nut; and we passed by a mistletoe tree (you read it right, we passed by it. Rana and I didn’t stand under it then, we had audience ;))

Caterpillar in an earlier moult

Please click on the images for a larger size

It was a rather humid day. We were dripping with sweat, and we were not even walking fast. Along the path, we stopped to see this colorful caterpillar, which would ultimately turn into the Common Mime butterfly. But this one wasn’t there yet. It had some more eating, growing and shedding to do.  When the mother lays eggs, she chooses plants on which the caterpillars can feed (host plant). Different species of butterflies have different host plants.  The caterpillars do complete justice to the feeding! They eat the leaves, munching their way to grow bigger and bigger. In fact, grow is an understatement. They outgrow and shed their skin.  The shedding of the skin is called moulting and the skin left behind is a ‘moult’. This colorful bright one had probably moulted twice or thrice before and was now in this form, all in black and orange, with white patches.

Pre-pupatory caterpillar with moult

We reached the bridge and were about to head back. Seeing the voracious feeder had made us hungry. It was then that we saw what everyone had almost missed – two fat and bright caterpillars. A quick check confirmed that they were indeed what we believed them to be – caterpillars of the Common Mime butterfly, very different from the other one, which was a much ‘younger’ caterpillar.  We found the black-orange-white moult next to one of them. They eat the moults, by the way. If this change was dramatic enough, the transformation to a Common Mime pupa is phenomenal.

Before we get there, let me share a few tidbits about butterflies.They face several threats from predators, parasites and parasitoids. Three main techniques that they use to protect themselves are:

  1. Camouflage (click here for some brilliant examples of insect camouflage)
  2. Unpalatability – some of the butterflies feed on certain ‘toxic’ plants and hence, become distasteful for their predators. If a predator, say a bird, tries to eat an unpalatable butterfly, it experiences strong heart beats and may vomit. The bird won’t forget this and surely, it’ll avoid such a “bitterfly” 😉
  3. Mimicry

Alseodaphne semecarpifolia

The Common Mime butterfly is a ‘harmless’, palatable butterfly, using mimicry for protection. It resembles either the Common Crow or the Blue Tiger, both unpalatable butterflies, and in turn, ‘visually cheats’ its predators.  However, its pupa uses camouflage for protection. We were all set to witness this transformation. The excitement was too much to handle, but we had to wait.

The Common Mime usually chooses saplings with fresh leaves and lays its eggs on the surface. These caterpillars were on the leaves of Alseodaphne semecarpifolia (known as Mashe / Nelthare / Karuvadi in Kannada).  The caterpillars munched on the light green, fresh leaves and got plumper by the day.

Pre-pupatory larva, bent

A few days passed after which the munching seemed to have stopped. They had moved on from the surface of the leaves to rest. One was on a stem and the other was on a twig.  These pre-pupatory caterpillars slowly changed their posture and appeared ‘bent’.

Many hours passed. It was 5:30 in the morning; all of a sudden the transformation was there for us to see. We missed the very first bit, but the rest was no less fantastic. Click here for a short video of the transformation from caterpillar to pupa stage.

Closeup of 'twig on twig'

There, in front of our eyes, was a bright caterpillar, twisting, wriggling, squirming and transforming to a ‘burnt and broken twig’! The pupa stood suspended from the twig with a silk girdle. It was like seeing a graceful trapeze artist hanging.

Camouflage is a widely used survival technique by many adult butterflies. This is one of the cases where a pupa uses camouflage.  It looks like a dead twig with the top broken off irregularly. It is black, brown and blotched all over. To add to the ‘effect’, the bottom segment appears as it is growing out of the branch or twig! A perfect camouflage, one of nature’s many wonders.

Closeup of the 'twig' on a stem

The 'twig' on a stemThe twig

We got to see two moults of the caterpillar and also its transformation to a ‘twig’. It has been one of the most fulfilling experiences in our lives. The sheer genius of the camouflage speaks for itself.

Sugandhi

Link to video: http://youtu.be/E8zjn-UCjoY

Acknowledgements:

Many thanks to Karthik M V, Vijay, Ravi and the staff of River Tern Lodge, Bhadra.

References:

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24 Comments

  1. g2-bff38b3e67399547eaf1168f84eb7c81 said,

    June 25, 2013 at 5:13 am

    Wow. That was quite an amazing change. I would never have guessed that that was the pupa, if you hadn’t pointed it out. Brilliant camouflage! Cautious to your observation and patience and thanks for sharing.

  2. June 25, 2013 at 6:09 am

    This is superb documentation … I have to be real careful now to even look at twigs … what camo that is !
    TFS.. lovely photos, video and write up ! 🙂

    • belurs said,

      June 26, 2013 at 6:59 am

      Thanks a bunch, Samyak. Glad you liked it 🙂

  3. Karthik said,

    June 25, 2013 at 6:51 am

    Whoa! Amazing observation and all these years i thought only chameleons were camouflage masters. Is the mime butterfly and moth similar or of the same family?

    • belurs said,

      June 26, 2013 at 7:06 am

      Thanks Karthik ! Yes, many of them are masters of camouflage and it is really a world of surprises out there.

  4. Sum said,

    June 25, 2013 at 7:08 am

    Awesome!

  5. deponti said,

    June 25, 2013 at 12:06 pm

    Lovely photos! Now I am going to look at all twigs carefully 🙂

  6. June 25, 2013 at 12:45 pm

    Awesome post

  7. Uma Bharath said,

    June 26, 2013 at 7:27 am

    Amazing! What a find! Thanks for sharing.

  8. Jyoti Belur said,

    June 26, 2013 at 2:17 pm

    That is simply brilliant!!! It is amazing that you managed to capture this incredible occurrence.

    • belurs said,

      June 26, 2013 at 5:40 pm

      Thanks Jyoti. Happened to be at the right place. 🙂

  9. Ravi Maganti said,

    June 29, 2013 at 1:38 pm

    Wow! What an amazing concept. Maya.

  10. July 16, 2013 at 1:23 pm

    Wow!! That’s one amazing camouflage artist…super observation and write up….tfs….

  11. Ramya said,

    July 24, 2013 at 7:01 am

    Amazing transformation. Thanks for documenting this so well!

  12. December 5, 2013 at 7:55 am

    […] is an interesting account of  Rana and Sugandhi’s blog post  on the Common Mime pupa camouflaging itself  into a twig for protection […]

  13. April 23, 2014 at 7:11 am

    […] can also read a similar experience we had with the Common Mime in the same […]


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