We have been growing a particular vine, for years, just for the Birdwing butterflies whose caterpillars depend on it. Just what the vine is called and which butterflies depend on it are, however, recurring questions – for us as well as for the many other people who love the butterflies. This post pulls together information from botanical and entomological books and websites to try to settle both questions.
Very briefly, all species of butterflies in one group of Swallowtail butterflies have specialised to feed exclusively on one group of closely related plants. The butterflies are the Troidini, a “tribe” (in scientific language that’s a level between “family” and “genus”) of Swallowtails (Papilionidae) and the plants are the Birthworts (Aristolochiaceae).
Our Troidini are the Clearwing Swallowtail (Cressida cressida), Red-bodied Swallowtail (Atrophaneura polydorus) and all of the Birdwings (Ornithoptera species). The Aristolochiaceae we’re interested in are in the genus Aristolochia, or used to be, and many of them are known as Dutchman’s Pipe vines.
A friend sent me a photo of a caterpillar ten days ago, with two implied questions:
This caterpillar is feeding off native Dutchmans Pipe.
Also, the Cairns Birdwing caterpillars of several people I have spoken to have died and butterflies are scarce even though there is a plentiful food source.
The first question was easy to answer: it was a caterpillar of the Clearwing Swallowtail, aka Big Greasy, butterfly (Cressida cressida), which shares Aristolochia tagala with the Cairns Birdwing.
They are quite distinctive at every stage of their little lives. The tiniest ones are orange; a little later they are maroon with white spines; and finally they are creamy-white with some maroon markings, as in this old post.
When they are ready to pupate, Cairns Birdwing caterpillars drop off the Aristolochia vine they had been eating and climb a neighbouring plant. There they find an appropriate twig or leaf, reinforce it with some of their silk, make a sling with more silk, and hang there in their new hard brown skin (which is what the chrysalis is) while they miraculously re-organise inside it (see this blog post for more details). When the time comes …
I posted a photo of a male Cairns Birdwing a couple of weeks ago with the comment that they are so common that “I rarely bother pointing a camera at them.” As usually happens in such cases, I proved myself wrong soon afterwards.
The occasion was my sighting of a female which I thought might be of the Northern species, the New Guinea Birdwing (Ornithoptera priamus), which shouldn’t be seen in Townsville according to the books. I then wanted to check that the local males weren’t (also?) New Guinea Birdwings but that meant getting a good look at the upper surface of the wings, which is not at all easy.
Birdwings and Ulysses on any rack of tourist-trap postcards lie around with their wings gaudily spread but in real life they do nothing of the sort. The wings slam shut as soon as they perch, presenting their much more discreet undersides to the gaze of predatory birds. Almost the only way of getting a photo of the upper sides from a wild swallowtail is to take a burst of shots of a hovering butterfly and throw away most of them. That’s how I got this one.
There are a few points of interest:
Getting a really sharp, clear photo by this technique is a fluky business. You need lots of light so the shutter speed can stay high enough to freeze the movement (I didn’t have that luxury), and enough shots that at least one of them is well composed.
It is definitely a Cairns Birdwing, not the northerner, because the large central black area has no green streak through it. That’s a little disappointing but not surprising.
The wings are catching the light at very different angles and show the same kind of apparent colour-change as the Eggfly. In this case, the bright yellow-green of the wing becomes bluish-purple when seen at an acute angle; it can look even more purple in flight, depending on the angle of the sun.
And this is an old, battered individual. The trailing edge of the left fore-wing is ragged, and the coloured areas have scratches where scales have been scraped off. This sort of damage is why I noted that the Lurcher (click here and scroll down) was rather elderly.
I have been writing about Cairns Birdwing butterflies quite often but there are still more things to say (and our visitors always seem delighted and fascinated by them) so I will keep adding to the story.
Pupation, the process of forming the chrysalis, changing inside it and emerging as an adult, is one of the most baffling processes in nature. I’m not even going to speculate about how an insect could have evolved such a bizarre practice but want to share my observations of the beginning and end of it.
Birdwing caterpillars eat until they are big enough and then leave the vine they have been feeding on and attach themselves to a nearby plant, often a metre or two off the ground (sometimes they drop from the vine to the ground to crawl up the stem of another plant). The one in my first photo chose the twig of a rose bush and I was intrigued to see that it reinforced the rose with strands of silk running down from the branch, over the leaf and around the twig – a sensible precaution against the leaf falling off, of course, but again one has to wonder how it evolved (as usual, click the photo to see it better). It then made a silk sling from the plant around what would be its shoulders if it had shoulders, and hung tail down for a surprisingly long period – a couple of days.
But how do they get into their chrysalis? I have to admit to relying on vague memories of silkworms, but those memories put me on the wrong track entirely because they don’t “get into” the chrysalis at all. Rather, they form it under their skin, then shed the skin just as they have already done several times during their growth as a caterpillar.
I actually woke up to that – and to my own ignorance – when I saw a fresh chrysalis, not yet hardened, flexing to shrug off the last part of its skin. In this second photo (not the same caterpillar, of course) you can see the crumpled skin, complete with head-shell and legs, still barely attached to the chrysalis.
A related point is the difference between a chrysalis and a cocoon. As Museum Victoria point out here, “the skin that emerges from under the old skin is a chrysalis. Both butterflies and moths develop a chrysalis in their pupal stage, but the chrysalises of moths are usually contained inside a woven structure made of silk – a cocoon.” Silkworms are the caterpillars of moths so they form cocoons around their chrysalises in just this way – see Wikipedia for more information.
The really mysterious stuff happens in the chrysalis, over the next month or so in the case of our Birdwings, and then the chrysalis splits and a damp butterfly emerges with crumpled wings. As soon as they straighten and harden, she – or he, as seen below – is off and away in search of nectar or a mate.