The word pansy has changed in meaning as I’ve gone through life: As a child, it meant a vibrantly coloured flower. Then in my teens, it meant femme phobia. Today, as a naturalist, I associate the word with a butterfly: the Blue Pansy ( Junonia orithiya ) that has a colouration as vibrant as the hybrid flower found most often in ornamental gardens.
The Book of Indian Butterflies by Isaac Kehimkar, an eminent butterfly expert, tells us that this butterfly has a wingspan of about 45-60 mm and belongs to the largest butterfly family called Nymphalidae that has over 6,000 species worldwide. “The forelegs or the front pair of legs in this family (mostly) are much reduced in size and are covered with hair, thus tend to look like brushes, thereby also being regarded as the Brush-footed butterflies,” it says.
The butterfly has electric blue on the upperwing and an earthy brown on the under. The male and the female look similar though the male is slightly more vibrant. As a behavioural trait, I have observed that the males are extremely territorial, trying to wade off other males from their territory.
Butterflies do not have an attack-based defence system, they mostly adopt ecological adaptions as a strategy to survive. A few have a ‘toxic approach’ by choosing host plants that contain toxins, but Pansies have a disguising approach. Their wings have wavy patterns, leading to strategically placed yellow, black, and / or red eyespot-like markings of varied sizes that are more pronounced and colourful on the upperwing, and dull on the under.
- The Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), in collaboration with NINOX - Owl about Nature and other partners are celebrating the Big Butterfly Month India in September 2020. There will be a formal backyard butterfly count between September 14 to 20 across India. To participate, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org .
The eyespots closer to the wing area near the abdomen are bigger and more reddish-orange, often resembling eyes of a predator, so other predators are frightened and fooled away. The duller eyespots are an attempt at diverting the predator’s attack away from the vital organs of their body - head, thorax and abdomen, as the butterflies can still fly with chipped wings.
Considering it is cold-blooded, you may often see this butterfly conspicuously basking (on the ground or on a plant) in the sun, with its wings wide open. When threatened, it closes its wings to reveal its underside with brown shades in order to camouflage with its surroundings. On our butterfly trails across Delhi-NCR, we see them quite commonly, but quite late into the trail telling us that these butterflies usually prefer warmer times in comparison to certain other butterflies.
You don’t have to go to an urban forest to discover them though. You’ll see them in gardens, on the lookout for nectar-rich plants like on the abundant periwinkle ( sadabahar ). The host plants, where they lay their eggs, belong to the family Acanthaceae like Peela Vajradanti ( Barleria prionitis ) and the Philippine Violet or Bluebell Barleria ( Barleria cristata ). These too are easily visible in our backyards. The Blue Pansy lays a single egg on the underside of the leaves to protect it from predators.
The writer is the founder of NINOX - Owl About Nature, a nature-awareness initiative. He is the Delhi-NCR reviewer for Ebird, a Cornell University initiative, monitoring rare sightings of birds. He formerly led a programme of WWF India.