Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is believed to hold the richest fauna community in East Africa, due in part to its provision of an extensive lowland-montane forest continuum (Afromontane forest is recognized as the rarest vegetation type in Africa) and exceptional species diversity, including many Albertine Rift endemics and 9 globally threatened species.
The park is also an ideal habitat for a wide variety of rare and endemic butterfly and moth species. At least 310 species of butterflies (Davenport 1995) have found home here and one can identify 50 species on a walk through the forest in a day. Eight of these are Albertine Rift endemics and yet 3 of these have only been sighted in Bwindi (or utmost the nearby forest in Congo). The three are Papilio leucotaenia, Graphium gudenusi and Charaxes fournierae.
Numerous studies from ITFC’s two decades of existence have clearly brought out the fact that these delicate creatures are in fact highly specialized and each species has a range and unique flight pattern. Caterpillars belonging to different species feed on a diversity of plant species and more often specialize on the plant parts they eat, e.g. young or old leaves.
Butterflies and moths are some of the most fascinating and eye catching flying insects in the world. A vast majority is brightly colored and is found all over the world, except in the Antarctica region. They are indeed one of the planet’s most beautiful creatures. People from all walks of life, irrespective of race, color or religion enjoy these beautiful winged flying jewels for their delicate beauty. Uganda has about 1200 butterfly species mostly found associated with tropical rainforests.
The word butterfly has curious origins. Butterflies get their name from the yellow brimstone butterfly of Europe that is first seen in the early spring or “butter” season? The Anglo- Saxons used the word BUTTERFLOEGE because their most common butterfly was the yellow brimstone butterfly.
The Russians call them BABOCHKA, meaning little soul. Ancient civilizations have depicted butterflies as little angels or souls, such that when people die, their souls go to heaven as butterflies. The importance of butterflies in many early civilizations is recorded in prehistoric caves and their depiction in pottery and fresco paintings. The best known example is the representation of the goddess Xochiquetzal in the form of a two tailed swallow tailed butterfly. In all, irrespective of age, people from all walks of life associate butterflies as friendly and soothing to the eyes, mind. body and soul.
Biologists estimate that worldwide there are about 150,000 different species of butterflies and moths, in which approximately 30,000 belong to the butterfly species. The sizes of a few species of butterflies range from less than an inch in size to a wing span of about 10 inches. The smallest species are no bigger than a fingernail and the largest swallowtails are larger than the smallest birds.
The world’s tiniest known species, the blue pygmy (Brephidium exilis), is found in Southern California and has a wing span of just over half an inch. Both the world’s smallest butterflies occur in peninsular India. The largest species, the New Guineas Queen Alexandria’s birdwing (Ornithoptera alexandrae) can measure up to twelve inches from wingtip to wingtip.
Butterflies provide aesthetic appeal and are connected with all plants and crops at all stages of their life cycle. Few are aware of the crucial role the butterfly plays in pollination of a large portion of economically important crops and flowering plants, which is second only to the honeybee. They pollinate about 75 per cent of staple crops in the world and 80 per cent of all flowering plants. The economic value of pollination is about $ 200 billion. Scientific studies have proved beyond doubt that pollinators account for 12% of the value of world wide agricultural production.
BENEFICIAL ASPECTS OF BUTTERFLIES
Butterflies are categorized as keystone species, which enable many smaller species of insects to thrive and reproduce in an ecosystem. In simple terms, it denotes that conservation of butterflies also conserves other species of insects. In fact, the basic health of our ecosystem is directly dependent on the number of butterfly species.
- Butterflies act as indicators in monitoring environmental health.
- Play an important role in food chains and food webs.
- Excellent pollinators
- Bio control of weeds
- Butterflies are very sensitive to pollution and have been used as bioindicators to detect the pollution levels.
- The fact of the matter is that most butterfly species have an average lifespan ranging from 20 to 40 days. A few species may live up to nine months.
- Butterflies are found world wide except on the continent of Antarctica.
- Butterflies can only see the colors red, green and yellow.
- Most butterfly species are dark colored because they need to absorb heat from the surrounding environment.
- Caterpillars spend most of their time eating leaves using strong mandibles (jaws). A caterpillar’s first meal however is its own eggshell. A few caterpillars are meat-eaters – e.g. the larva of the carnivorous Harvester butterfly eats woolly aphids.
- Butterflies do not have any chewing mouth parts. They are gifted with a tubular straw like appendage known as proboscis which enables them to sip nectar. Butterflies “smell” with their antennae and taste with their feet.
- Butterflies are one of the few creatures on earth that can orient themselves both in latitude and longitude
- Male butterflies attract females by releasing pheromone chemicals (scent) from their abdomen.
- Butterflies and moths are picky in choosing leaves for egg laying.
- Butterflies and moths are picky in choosing leaves for their diet.
- When folded, a butterfly’s wings are usually much less colorful, providing instant camouflage from would-be predators.
- The earliest butterfly fossils are from the early Cretaceous period, about 130 million years ago. Their development is closely linked to the evolution of flowering plants (angiosperms)
Butterflies are the only insect that has scales. Butterfly scales contains pigment, which in combination with light refraction gives butterflies their colors.
Moth master of camouflage – Bwindi, Uganda. 2,250m
Butterflies play a critical ecological role and should therefore better protected and managed. There is mounting concern regarding the devastating losses of butterfly colonies because of unprecedented habitat destruction. This is the single greatest threat to butterflies. The rate of deforestation is accelerating and is already higher in the tropics compared to other parts of the world. Let us begin with the smallest steps by planting flowering plants in our backyards and help native butterflies survive. In schools we need to encourage gardening and so also in public places with green all round. Schools and colleges should conduct training programmes and guided field trips, so that students learn firsthand the wild behavior of these beautiful winged jewels. School children from the primary level should be taught about butterflies and the vital role they play in different aspects of human life. Awareness at all levels will definitely help these winged jewels survive and coexist in a world dominated by humans.
T. Davenport, P. Howard and R. Mathews Bwindi Impenetrable National Park Biodiversity Report