Living jewels of the jungle
IN THE JUNGLES of South America, there live butterflies so beautiful they are called "living
jewels". And foremost in fame and beauty among them is Ancyluris formosissima. This
Latin name proclaims the species the most beautiful of butterflies. Its wings are equally colourful
on both surfaces, making it difficult to decide which side of this creature to display in
a collection (if one owns only a single specimen).
These butterflies belong to the family often referred to as metalmarks and judies - metalmarks
because of the markings which look like brilliant metallic flecks, often set alongside bands
of iridescent hues. Like gems, they are tiny. Their wingspans range from only 2 to 6.5 centimetres.
There are more than 1,000 species of these butterflies in the world, with the vast majority
confined to the tropics of Central and South America. But Malaysia is fortunate to have about 16
species. It’s a small but precious gift package from Mother Nature. And I consider myself
to be lucky to have photographed nine of them in roughly ten years of butterfly watching in
various parts of Peninsular Malaysia.
The metalmarks are not rare, but they are rarely seen because of their furtive nature. They
live in primary forests and seldom venture out of their habitats.
The Malaysian species inhabit well-wooded localities on hillsides. They are usually found
singly. With several exceptions, they settle with wings held half-open, as if ready to take
flight at the slightest sign of danger. They appear to be nervous or listless creatures. They
may be seen on sunny days walking with jerky movements on a leaf lit by rays of light piercing
through the forest canopy.
In this behaviour, they differ from their cousins in the Neotropics which are said to settle
on the underside of leaves. The nine species that I have managed to capture on film were all
shot while settled on the topside of leaves.
Of these nine, I consider that two, the Malay Red Harlequin (Paralaxita damajanti) and
the Red Harlequin (Paralaxita telesia), qualify to rank among the world’s most
beautiful butterflies. In my eyes, they are Malaysia’s living jewels of the jungle.
Seen at close quarters, P. damajanti dazzles with its electric blue streaks and
markings of black and
white set against a bright carmine ground colour on the underside. This
species is unique among Malaysian butterflies in having an upper wing surface of bright carmine
which is unmarked. A collector with a single specimen would have a little dilemma on his hand.
Which side to exhibit?
P. telesia has black-edged blue markings set against a yellow-red, almost orange,
ground colour. The underside is a dark brown colour with carmine on the forewing apices. In the
male, the forewings are also marked with a white spot on the upper side.
The Harlequin (Taxila haquinus) and the Lesser Harlequin (Laxita thuisto) bear
more subtle markings of light blue and black set against a pale brown colour. They are nevertheless
pretty little creatures. Note the anagram in their generic names TAXILA and LAXITA.
The Punchinello (Zemeros flegyas) is a gay little butterfly which may be encountered
even in the late afternoon on the forest fringe. It flies so fast that it appears to be
skipping from leaf to leaf. At rest, it characteristically holds its wings half-open as if
ready to take off any moment. Zemeros emesoides resembles the Punchinello in size and
shape, differing only slightly in colour and wing markings.
The Malayan Plum Judy (Abisara saturata), like the Punchinello, seems to be a
nervous little fellow. It is constantly flitting from leaf to leaf and is quite difficult to
photograph. Its cousin, the Tailed Judy (Abisara savitri), also seldom stays still.
Abisara savitri has distinct white-tipped tails on the hindwings instead of the mere
projects found on A. saturata.
These pictures were taken with Pentax cameras (either the MX or ME Super) equipped with a
standard lens coupled to a Vivitar Macro Focusing Teleconverter (MFTC) and eletronic flash
units. Apertures set on the standard lens vary from f8 to f11, giving effective apertures of
f16 to f22. I use Ektachrome and Fujichrome.
With nine already in my slide collection, I certainly hope to photograph some or all of the
seven other species in due course.
* This article was published in the Royal Photographic Journal, Vol 134 No 7
* Apologies for the poor quality of the photos. Some of the photos were taken in the mid-1980s
and the colour slides do not keep well in Malaysia's humid climate.