Butterflies of the
Amazon and Andes
Family - NYMPHALIDAE
subfamily - DANAINAE
Tribe - ITHOMIINI
Tithorea harmonia hermias, Satipo, Peru ©
The Ithomiini comprises of 376 known species,
although it is likely that at least another 30 will be discovered in
the near future. All are confined to the neotropical region.
are unpalatable to birds, and are consequently mimicked in
appearance by many other species. These include other unpalatable
species ( Müllerian mimics ), not only from the Ithomiinae but also
from several other butterfly families. There are also a large number
of edible species ( Batesian mimics ) which have evolved similar
patterns. Birds have the ability to memorise butterfly patterns and
so learn to avoid eating noxious species, but are also fooled into
ignoring similarly marked edible species.
characterised by having small eyes, slender abdomens and long
drooping antennae that lack distinct clubs. Males have a plume of
long androconial scales or "hair pencils" on the costa of their
hindwings. These are hidden from view when the butterflies are at
rest, but are displayed when the wings are held open during
courtship. Other Ithomiine characteristics include a very slow and
deep wing beat, and a preference for inhabiting the darkest recesses
of the forest understorey.
are basically 2 types of Ithomiine. The first type are the black and
orange-banded "tigers", many of which are mimicked by other species
due to their unpalatability to birds. The second type are the
"glasswings", recognised by their transparent or translucent wings,
prominent veins, and orange wing margins. Many genera contain
examples of both of these types, and in some cases an individual
species may produce adults of both forms according to location.
novices find the Ithomiini very difficult to identify. Using only
the patterns to identify species is very unreliable because there
are so many similar species. Also many species produce a variety of
different colour forms according to locality and season. The best
approach therefore is to use the hindwing venation and other
anatomical features to identify the genus, and to then look at the
wing patterns to short-list the likely species.
Tithorea are large
butterflies. They often fly in sunny glades where they can easily be
confused with Heliconius species such
numata or hecale. The easiest
way to distinguish Tithorea from their
mimics is to examine the antennae and legs.
Tithorea antennae are very gradually tapered, cream in
colour, and drooping. In Pieridae they are parallel along the stalk,
with a strongly clubbed tip, while in Papilionidae the tip is
clubbed and recurved. Ithomiines, Heliconiines and Nymphalines have
only 2 pairs of functioning legs. In the Ithomiines these are long,
giving the impression of a butterfly on stilts. Papilionidae and
Pieridae have 3 pairs of functioning legs.
Tithorea harmonia is
one of the commonest and most widespread of the toxic "tiger"
species, being found from Mexico to the southern Amazon. There are
26 named subspecies.
Tithorea harmonia hermias, Satipo, Peru ©
This species is found in sub-tropical deciduous forest as well as in
evergreen rainforest habitats. It occurs at altitudes between
The larvae feed on Prestonia acutifolia
( Apocynaceae ). These foodplants contain
toxins that are ingested by the larvae and passed
on to the adult butterflies, rendering
them highly distasteful to birds. Other Ithomiines are also
noxious to birds, but obtain the toxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids found
in the adult butterflies are sequestered by the adults from nectar
or plant exudates rather than being sequestered in the larval stage.
do not have any descriptions of the early stages of
harmonia, but they are likely to be
similar to those of the closely
related species T. tarricina. The larva
of the latter is pale green with dark bands around the segments, and
has two long filaments arising from the first thoracic segment. The
pupa of tarricina is silvery and
resembles a large water droplet.
Tithorea harmonia hermias, Madre de Dios, Peru ©
Tithorea harmonia is usually encountered
singly, but at the Alto Rio Madre de Dios in Peru I once found over 20
flying together, possibly the result of a spontaneous mass emergence.
In sunny weather the adults tend to
be secretive, flying in light gaps in the understorey. In cloudy
conditions however, or at the approach of dusk, they emerge into more
open areas along the edges of streams or wide forest tracks. There
they can be seen fluttering amongst herbage, or settled on low
foliage, slowly fanning their wings.
Males are commonly attracted to
bird droppings, from which they sequester pyrrolizidine alkaloids.
These chemicals serve multiple purposes -
they increase the toxicity
of the butterfly rendering it unpalatable to birds,
are essential in the production of pheromones,
they are transferred to the female during copulation thereby
increasing her longevity and fertility. Males often visit the same
bird dropping on 3 or 4 successive days.
sexes visit flowers including Psychotria,
Chomelia. They share with Heliconiines the habit of spending
long periods nectaring at individual blooms, and habitually return to
the same flower over a period of days.
weather the adults roost openly on foliage in the understorey, but
during rainy spells they hide amongst the rootlets of palms.
At the end of the dry season they
and other Ithomiines tend to gather at the last remaining sources of
moisture within the forest, such as dry river beds, marshy areas or