Thailand, Malaysia &
Family - LYCAENIDAE
subfamily - LIPHYRINAE
Tribe - LIPHYRINI
Liphyra brassolis larva, Siem Reap, Cambodia
© Dani Jump
subfamily Liphyrinae comprises of 19 small stout-bodied African
species in the genus Aslauga, 3 African
species in Euliphyra, and 3
Indo-Australian species in Liphyra.
These genera are treated by several workers as members of another
subfamily, Miletinae. In the latter arrangement the Liphyrinae are
relegated to the rank of a tribe - Liphyrini.
most well known of the 3 Liphyra
species is the "moth butterfly"
brassolis, which is distributed from India to the
Philippines, and south via Borneo and peninsular Malaysia to
Sulawesi, Java and Australia. The other 2 species -
castnia, are both endemic to New Guinea.
moth butterfly is one of the largest members of the Lycaenidae in
the world, with a wingspan of about 70-76mm. The butterflies are
heavily built, and have a furry moth-like appearance, hence the
species inhabits rainforest, including degraded and semi-cleared
areas, at altitudes between sea level and about 400 metres.
extraordinary carnivorous caterpillar of
Liphyra brassolis lives inside the nests of weaver ants
Oecophylla smaragdina, attacking and
devouring hundreds of ant grubs.
The butterfly lays
it's eggs singly on the underside of
tree branches. It often returns several times to the same spot, so
that several eggs may eventually be laid in close proximity. The
chosen tree can be one of several species, but only "ant trees", are
used, i.e. a specimens which have been colonised by weaver ants.
Each tree holds numerous ant nests, each constructed by the ants
from bunches of leaves which they have stitched together with silk.
Each nest may contain between 50-200 worker ants, a queen ant, and
hundreds of developing ant grubs.
eggs hatch after about 3 weeks. The early part of the larval stage
is not recorded, so it is not known what the caterpillars feed on
during the 1st and 2nd instars, or how they find their way into the
ant nests. One possibility is that they feed at first on algae
growing on the tree trunks ( as is the case with Lipteninae in
Africa ), and are later captured by ants and taken into the nests.
are commonly found within ant nests. A single nest can sometimes
house as many as 5 or 6 Liphyra
caterpillars. Any insect unfortunate enough to find it's way into an
ant nest would normally be killed and eaten, but the
tortoise-like Liphyra caterpillar has a
built-in survival kit, in the form of a very tough chitinous
carapace that is impervious to ant bites. The ants attempt to flip
the caterpillar over to reach the soft under belly, but the
caterpillar uses it's powerful sucker-like feet to pull the carapace
down and seal it against the substrate, defeating all attempts by
the ants to gain entry.
Whenever the caterpillar is hungry, it lifts the carapace slightly,
and pops it's head out to grab an ant grub with its mandibles. In an
instant the grub is pulled under the carapace. The caterpillar then
pierces the skin of the grub, and sucks out the juices. The empty
skin of the grub is then ejected, and the caterpillar roams a short
distance until it locates and kills it's next victim. Up to a dozen
ant grubs can be killed and eaten per hour by a single caterpillar.
A few Liphyra caterpillars can easily
annihilate an entire brood of ant grubs in a couple of weeks.
The pupa is formed
beneath the protective carapace, where it is safe from attack.
In Burma, Thailand
and Cambodia the caterpillars and pupae are harvested by villagers
for human consumption. They are also used in medicines, and in bird
feed and fish bait.
the butterfly emerges from it's pupa, it cracks open the protective
carapace, and finds itself inside the ant nest, surrounded by scores
of very aggressive ants which try very hard to kill it. They are
unable to do so however because the body and wings of the butterfly
are covered with loose sticky scales which become detached and clog
the jaws of the ants. This enables the butterfly to crawl out of the
ant nest and find a safe spot where it can expand and dry it's wings
before taking it's first flight.
Contrary to popular
myth, the moth butterfly is not crepuscular, but flies during
daylight like other Lycaenidae. It is unable to feed, as it's
proboscis is wholly atrophied, so it depends for sustenance entirely
on fats and proteins stored within its body, acquired during the