The lemon tree

You must’ve heard the German musical band, Fool’s Garden,  singing

I wonder how
I wonder why
Yesterday you told me ’bout the blue, blue sky
And all that I can see is just a yellow lemon tree
I’m turning my head up and down
I’m turning, turning, turning, turning, turning around
And all that I can see is just another lemon tree

I don’t see any lemon tree in the song’s visuals! I wonder how anything could be boring, especially when one can see a lemon tree. One such lemon tree is next to the staircase leading to the reception at River Tern Lodge. Vijay, one of the naturalists at the property had told us about the treasure he had discovered on it. Usually one would expect to find treasure buried beneath trees, but some kinds of treasure are found on trees.

Blue Mormon caterpillar

“Where did it go?” What? Did we lose the treasure before finding it? “Ah, there it is”, he said with a deep sigh. The green gold had crawled away to a different leaf. The caterpillar of the Blue Mormon (Papilio polymnestor) butterfly was big, green and with a different gait. Apparently, it has this halting walk because it stops to weave silk on whatever it moves on to have a good, strong hold on the surface. This one’s quite similar to the caterpillars of Common Mormon and Malabar Banded Swallowtail, its greenish head being a key differentiator.

BlueMormonInstar2

Before we could thank him for discovering this beauty, he said “there’s more!”. Did he just wave his hand like a magician? For, caterpillars of all sizes and colors, suddenly came into view. We had glued our eyes onto one green gold, but there was more! In school, we learn about the four stages of a butterfly’s life cycle. But in the larval or caterpillar stage itself, it transforms many times, each form being known as an instar

BlueMormonBirdDropping

Bird poop mimic

Another instar was nicely bathed in olive-green. Now, a skillful make-up artist can dramatically change the appearance to disguise anyone – and I mean a real disguise, not the kind where adding a moustache is supposed to fool onlookers and viewers. These caterpillars seem to ‘hire’ such make-up artists to add a dash of whitish patch here and there, to make them look like bird poop. Their disguise (mimicry) is near-perfect, because the shine adds a feeling of freshness to the poop 😉 This gives them ample safety from their predators, at least from the kind that doesn’t feast on poop.

By then, a group had gathered behind us, in true Indian style – always hungry forBlueMormonPupa what someone else is doing. But I am glad that hunger existed, because everyone in the group was excitedly looking for a caterpillar here, a spider beneath the leaves, listening to the ‘tik-tik-tik’ sound in the distance or some hiccup-like sound near the gate. Vijay got us to focus on another stage, the pupa, hanging delicately.

BlueMormonLarvaInstar1Lokesh had also joined us. He is one of the folks who takes people on boat safaris and never fails to amaze us with his skills of spotting *and* identifying wildlife from a great distance. He was frantically asking for some torchlight, for he had found eggs, which were later identified to be those of a different butterfly. We also saw the adults, two males and a female, in the next couple of days.

We had seen the large and stunningly beautiful Blue Mormon in various stages of its life. And most of the stages were on the lemon tree. The “stationary” lemon tree was full of life and had attracted a decent sized crowd. There were people who had just finished a safari, heading to grab a cup of tea, but had joined the lemon tree group. But nobody spoke about large-sized mammals, nobody remembered the tea. The lemon tree was silently glowing, because of the enlightenment it was giving to the hungry folks in front of it – hungry to learn about the stories it had to share.

BlueMormonAdults

Rana

p.s: This post has also been published as a story on JLR Explore.

You can also read a similar experience we had with the Common Mime in the same campus.

References:

  • India, a Lifescape: Butterflies of Peninsular India – by Krushnamegh Kunte
  • Wiki
  • I found butterflies (Saji, K., H. Ogale, R. Lovalekar, R. Das & T. Bhagwat. 2014. Papilio polymnestor Cramer, 1775 – Blue Mormon. In K. Kunte, S. Kalesh & U. Kodandaramaiah (eds.). Butterflies of India, v. 2.00. Indian Foundation for Butterflies)
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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.

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Behavioral Ecology, Natural History, Science and Society

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South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People

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