Butterflies of Africa
Family - LYCAENIDAE
subfamily - LIPTENINAE
Tribe - LIPTENINI
Bunso, Ghana ©
The subfamily Lipteninae is wholly African in
distribution, and comprises of no less than 600 species, varying
from the tiny creamy yellow Liptena
xanthostola to the almost blindingly bright metallic blue
Epitola posthumus - a species which
with a wingspan of 65mm is massive by Lycaenidae standards.
The Lipteninae are
fascinating because of their association with "ant trees", i.e.
trees which support colonies of Crematogaster
ants. As with most other Lycaenidae species, the caterpillars of
Liptenids have ants in almost constant attendance. The ants "milk" a
sugary substance from a gland on the caterpillar's back, and in
return for this reward the caterpillar benefits because the presence
of the aggressive ants deters other insects such as wasps and flies
that would otherwise attack them.
Liptena comprises of 65 known species,
all of similar size ( circa 35mm wingspan ), but varying in colour
from pure white to yellow, orange or black. Some species such as
xanthostola have only very feint
markings, while others are strongly patterned with dark wavy lines,
spots or patches of reddish-orange.
Liptena xanthostola is one of about
half a dozen cream coloured species, most of which have a dark apex
on the upperside. It found in found from Sierra Leone to Uganda and
western Kenya, and is considered to be a rarity, although I've found
it in several forests in southern Ghana.
This is a rainforest species, and tends to be encountered along the
minor tracks and paths in denser parts of the more intact forest
blocks. It is found at altitudes between about 100-500m.
The caterpillars browse on the trunks of their "ant-trees". These
trees can be any one of a number of species from different plant
families. There is conjecture about what exactly it is that the
larvae feed upon - e.g. some writers consider them to feed on
lichens, while others insist it is blue-green algae. It may even be
the case that they feed on microscopic fungi, and it is possible
that ants play a part in cultivating these fungi.
Bunso, Ghana ©
butterflies behave similarly to most other small Liptenids - they
spend long periods at rest, sitting at the tips of leaves or tendrils
with their wings held erect. Periodically they fan their wings in such
a way that the apexes of the forewings meet underneath the abdomen.
This is done in a very deliberate way which appears to indicate that
it is some sort of signal, and at least one writer has suggested that
the butterflies may be signalling to the ants. It seems more likely
however that the behaviour serves a simpler purpose, e.g. it may be
necessary to invert the wings in this way to facilitate the release of
pheromones to attract mates.
There is an interesting tale about the
photo at the top of this page which should serve as a warning to all
who visit rainforests. I spotted the butterfly a few feet away from
me, and left the trail so that I could study it's behaviour. After a
few minutes my attention was diverted by a
Euphaedra, which I followed for a short distance, hoping to get
a photograph. Although I had wandered no more than a few metres from
the trail I was unable to locate it again, and spent the next 2 hours
searching for it. Eventually I found another trail and followed it.
Fortunately it emerged on a logging road, and after walking 2 kms
uphill in searing heat I eventually found a forestry station. There I
was told that to get back to my starting point I needed to walk 4 kms
back downhill to a public road. I did so, and had the good fortune to
get a lift on a motorbike back to to the guesthouse where I was
staying. Unfortunately however the stress and exhaustion of the day
considerably weakened my immune system, and I was taken ill the
following day with a bad fever. The middle of Africa is not a good
place to be ill. It took several weeks for me to make a full recovery.
The moral of this story should now be clear - NEVER wander away from
Bunso, Ghana ©