Butterfly List

Photos: Not just pretty pictures, a new butterfly catalogue can help save India’s rivers

Keeping track of butterflies at headwaters of rivers can help track the health of forests and their water bodies

India finally has its first comprehensive catalogue of butterflies since Independence. Peter Smetacek, a scientist at the Butterfly Research Centre at Bhimtal, spent years putting together a synoptic list of the 1,318 species found across the country. The exercise is not only to document the variety of butterflies in India but to help save India’s rivers – a cause that Smetacek has been championing.

“We have been trying to analywe the health of the forest using the insect community there and that is why the catalogue is important because you must know what is where,” Smetacek explained. To do this, scientists first must clarify taxonomy of the various species and then ascertain what a forest contains. “We did that with butterflies and we will move on to moths," he said. "In due course we will have a map of different types of community structures in different parts of India, especially in the headwaters of rivers.”

The eventual goal, the butterfly expert said, is to charge forest departments with maintaining or monitoring populations of insects, birds or other bio-indicators that tell us about the health of the forest at headwaters. Acting on the basis of such ecological information, experts could act to stabilise the flow of rivers so that it can really ensure our water security.

“That is the only concrete approach. All the rest that we are doing with dams and so on are of no use,” said Smetacek.

Butterflies may not be the best plant pollinators around but they are integral to the food chain, converting plant matter to animal protein by serving on the diets of insects, frogs, wasps and birds. The new catalogue has been the first butterfly list compiled for India since 1932. After Independence and Partition, no one knew which butterfly species remained in Pakistan and the occupied parts of Kashmir. The Synoptic Catalogue of the Butterflies of India that has been edited by Smetacek and RK Varshney, retired additional director of the Zoological Society of India, has filled in those information gaps.The catalogue includes remarkable varieties like the Travancore Evening Brown, a butterfly endemic to India and found only in Kerala and Karnataka. The butterfly is the only existing species in its genus and its closest relative is found in South America indicating that its belongs to a lineage that went extinct ages ago. “Luckily there is a very good, viable population in protected areas,” said Smetacek.

Here's a look at some of those 1,318 species.

Bronze Duke Euthalia nara found in the Eastern Himalaya.

Indian Fritillary male found over most of India.

Orange Oakleaf Kallima inachus found in northern India is the best example of camouflage.

Striped Blue Crow Euploea mulciber has brilliant blue marking and slow, unhurried flight.

Tailed Punch Dodona has a false head at the tip of the hindwing.

Tiger Brown Orinoma damaris is the only species of its genus found from Himachal Pradesh to China.

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