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. Ithomiines 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.
Ithomiines are 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.
There 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.
Most 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 as
or hecale. The easiest way to
distinguish Tithorea from their mimics
is to examine the antennae and legs. Tithorea
antennae are very gradually tapered, 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
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
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.
I 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, they are essential in the production of
pheromones, and 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.
Both 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.
In dry 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 muddy pools.