A recent research has identified over 101 species of butterflies in the Alagar hills

The Alagar hill is one of the few green pockets close to the city. The hill is well-known for its biodiversity and the abundance of flora and fauna. A recent study by Joy Sharmila, Professor of Zoology, American College, has identified a variety of butterflies at the Alagar hills.

A visit to the Bannerghatta Butterfly Park inspired Sharmila to take up the study and in four years, she has classified around 101 species and five families of butterflies.

“This is the first study on butterflies in Madurai district. Alagar hill is a composite forest that has scrub and deciduous patches. And it’s a paradise for butterflies,” says Sharmila. “Butterflies are beautiful beings and form an important part of the food chain. A number of rare birds feed on them. They contribute in pollination and help in energy recycling as their larva feed on leaves. Some butterflies also feed on organic waste, thus helping bio degradation.” The objective of the research was to study the seasonal patterns, diversity and structural scales of butterflies.

“Butterflies can be differentiated by their colours, antennas and the way they sit. The first butterfly we identified is ‘Southern Bird Wing’ which is said to be an endemic to Western Ghats,” she says. “It was a startling discovery to see it in Alagar hills which is part of the Eastern Ghats. It’s the largest butterfly of south India and is of the size of a bird’s wing or a human palm.”

The study was conducted at Garuda Theertham, Murugan Temple, Theertha Thotti, Thalaiyanai Paarai, Bison Valley, Vathipatti slope and Periyaruvi regions on the hill.

“In places where vehicular traffic is high, butterflies die in hundreds everyday,” rues Sharmila. Common Albatross, Yellow Orange Tip and Banded Peacock are the varieties that are most affected. “The butterfly population at Vathipatti slope and Bison Valley are relatively better as there is minimum human intrusion.”

“Lots of butterflies can be seen mud-puddling on the walker’s path in the breeding season. Butterflies mud-puddle to extract Sodium from the soil for reproduction,” says Sharmila. “From June to August, they can be seen in thousands at the Alagar hill. Apart from garden butterflies, a number of wild forest species also thrive in the region.” Over 32 species have been found in Vathipatti and Thalaiyanai parai. And 11 species are found all over the hills.

The study has also documented the scale structures of butterflies. “Butterflies take energy from the sun through their scales. The interior patterns of scales differ in all butterflies. We are exploring the possibility of making biomimetic solar cells and panels based on these findings. In future, it will help in making nano structures,” says Sharmila. DNA Coding of butterflies is another important part of the study.

“By tracking this code, the native region of a particular specimen of butterfly can be identified. We are currently coding all the species we found in Alagar hills.”

Sharmila has compiled the study into a book ‘Butterflies of Alagar Hills’ and a documentary film is in the pipeline. “The next step is to take this forward and set up a butterfly park such as Bannerghatta,” she says.

Tidbits:

Hesperiidae is a family of skipper butterflies that are found in abundance at Alagar hill. They look like moths and are dull in colour.

Ornamental Swallow tails, garden butterflies such as Blue Mormon, forest species like Common Banded peacock and Monkey Puzzle, brush-footed butterflies called Nymphalidae and sailing and fruit-eating butterflies are the commonly seen varieties.

Yellow and white butterflies under the family called Pieridae, mud-puddle on the walker’s path.

Rare varieties spotted on the hill are -- Common Nawab that looks like a Nawadi Topi, Glad Eye bush Brown, Leapard, Club Beak, Grey Pansy that’s only found in Vathpatti slope, Baronet, Black Raja, Common Laskar, Spotted angle and Grey State Fly