By Max Silvester
Butterflies are amongst the most popular insects in the animal kingdom. There is no shortage of these elegant and graceful creatures in East Africa, which boasts 2,500 species out of an estimated global 20,000, in excess of 10%! This is a huge testament to the variety and range of environments found in this diverse area of the globe.
Here at Loisaba, this is very much the same story, with deep dense vegetated valleys along seasonal streams, vast open grassland plains and dizzying rock cliffs- all areas that allow space for a range of species and sub species to thrive. Arguably the most prominent and exciting aspect surrounding the order of Lepidoptera, (which comes from the Greek lepis, lepid-scale and pteron-wing) is that there are vast gaps in human understanding. With very little known about an estimated 12.5 % of the global population, there is a huge likelihood of undiscovered species, hence vast swathes of ground-breaking discoveries are yet to be made.
At Loisaba, which is classified as arid and semi-arid bushland between 5000 and 6000 feet above sea level, we have a number of different species. One that is especially prominent is the order of the “whites and yellows” (Pieridae), these can be found in abundance especially after the rains. Furthermore, in our locality many species including the stunning and multi-patterned Charaxes order perform habitual dances gathering at the top of hills in displays known as ‘hill-topping’. Interestingly, these often impressive and acrobatic displays may indeed have an important biological function, it is here that butterflies of opposite sexes find suitable mates and assure the next cycle of life begins. Once a pair of butterflies has mated the female is under a certain amount of time pressure to find a suitable food plants on which to lay their eggs, since it is vital for caterpillars (usually formed in highly efficient cocoons following the egg stage) to have access to nutrition to kick start their lives in the outside world. Therefore, “Hill-topping” assures that the female butterflies are not unnecessarily pestered by more males when they move on to find suitable laying sites which are located a reasonable distance away from dancing displays.
Artistic impressions and illustrations by Jo Silvester
Larsen, T. (1991) The Butterflies of Kenya and their natural history. New York: Oxford
Martins, D. and Collins, S. (2016) Butterflies of East Africa. Cape Town: Struick Nature