Butterflies: Beauties on Wings

By Dr. Ranjit K. Sahu, Ravi Shankar Behera and Pratap K. Behera

Butterflies, easily recognized due to their colorfully patterned wings are one of the most popular among insects, entomological belonging to the order Lepidoptera along with skippers and moths. While several thousand of species are known, a few have gained more limelight than others due to their unique characteristics, for example, the monarch butterfly. They form an important part of the ecosystem where they exist and their conservation is of utmost concern along with bees for both sustainable agroforestry productivity as well as maintaining ecological balance. Though they lack pollen sacs, butterflies are the second most important pollinators among insects. Additionally they can help in evolution of plants as they carry pollen over longer distances and visit many species of plants.

Many interesting facts about butterflies are known. They can utilize the entire intake of food without excretion. The Male butterflies drink water from puddles to meet their mineral requirements. Butterflies migrate to long distances to escape weather extremity (e.g. the monarch butterfly). It is also interesting that the wings are clear and the colored patterns are due to the reflection of tiny scales. What is of importance in terms of butterfly conservation is that they may require very specific plants for their survival, and thus loss of specific species of plants may result inevitably to loss of the butterfly species dependent on them. A simple example is that of silk worm moth which belongs to the same order and is more for less limited to living off mulberry leaves in its caterpillar stage.

Butterflies are most susceptible to ecological changes and as reported many species are under threat in England. It is only a matter of time before the problem is identified and tackled in over countries. Thus, the health of an ecosystem is easily gauged by the presence and abundance of butterflies. They are also indicator species of existence of the invertebrates and being easy to spot can empirically indicate the status of the ecosystem where they are present or absent. With increasing incidents of human encroachment and interference in the untrodden land and wild habitats of animals and plants, the direct threat to butterflies is real. Importantly, the continuous conversion of forest land for agroforestry or other human activities jeopardizes the possibility of retaining these beautiful insects without any extra conservation efforts. Threat also appears from the pollution of soil, air and water systems that have been traditionally clean due to industrial build up and increased “development infrastructure”, such as roads, bridges, culverts, embankments, housing projects etc. Thus, more than any other insect the absence of colorful butterflies is an easy way for the common man to identify the loss of the normal balance in an ecosystem.

Pictures of Butterflies from Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary

Many developed countries have butterfly parks, as an addendum of zoos or botanical gardens with a view to imbibe the importance of these magnificent creatures into children and adults alike. However this system has not yet been established well in the Indian context.  At present butterfly spotting is limited to a few enthusiasts and naturalists or to academicians who have a professional interest in these insects.

A recent tour of one of the authors into the Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary (GWS) has helped to appreciate some of these beauties (Photos). The author has spotted several butterflies and these are displayed with the intent of evoking a public interest in the conservation and propagation of butterflies, though in a study about a decade ago, did not claim any threat to any species in this location. As per a scientific study conducted in 2006, off about ten families of butterflies existing in India, about seven families of butterflies exist in GWS, making it a hot bed of butterfly biodiversity. Another study documented that while about 900 species were identified in the same location in 1957, only about 211 species were seen in 2014. Many factors can affect this discrepancy while also indicating a loss of the species. The short life span of butterflies, their specific requirements and the effects of imminent climate change and human interference further require their protection due to they importance to ecological systems. They contribute immensely to the food chain in terms of being a prey source for birds and flying mammals like flying foxes and bats apart from the caterpillars being creation of butterfly, eaten up by different animals and birds as a great source of protein. From a commercial point of view, the chemicals produced by butterflies for their survival and reproduction can have significance for the fragrance and pharmaceutical industry.

Steps that maybe undertaken to protect butterflies include – planting of native species of plants in the areas where the butterflies exist or dwell during their migration. The creation of migration corridors with plants that help sustaining the butterflies during their migration is a mother strategy. Prevention of contamination of soil, air and water sources and availability of good mixed forest and grassland patches help retain the beauties in a sustainable manner. Restricting movement to trails in sanctuaries is another way to protect butterfly habitat. The creation of butterfly parks is not very expensive and requires minimal space. Creation of butterfly parks in residential complexes for the preservation of local species and their breeding as well as for education and entertainment can be a promising venture. Planting flowering trees that can provide a source of nectar for the butterflies and leaves for the larvae help incorporate butterflies into cityscapes along with other innovating steps. Construction of damp site or watering holes for nurturing male butterflies in butterfly habitats is important.

World over, there is a growing awareness about the conservation of butterflies and their protection from poaching and human interference. However, the common person usually interprets conservation in terms of larger species like Tigers. Small species like bees and butterflies do not garner attention as their existence is taken for granted. Creating awareness about the importance and need of butterflies in our immediate environments and inspiring a love for them in the young and adult may be a good approach to incorporate these magnificent creatures into our lives and improve its aesthetic value.

About the Authors

Pratap Kumar Behera M.Sc (Ag)  is a naturalist and a painting artist with over 30 years of experience in painting with water color, oil and acrylic, His paintings have been often included in the cover pages of the magazine Karshika (A publication from his alma matter OUAT). His hobbies include poetry and photography.

Dr. Ranjit K. Sahu is a freelance writer currently located in Virginia, USA. His interests include education, environment, sustainability and health care in the underprivileged regions of the world.

 Ravi Shankar Behera is a free lance consultant in the development sector and affiliated to several organizations, currently based in New Delhi.

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