December 3, 2021
Butterflies of Malaysia

Butterflies of Sabah Borneo

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Butterfly is the most beautiful insect in the world and has been a symbol of elegance, romance and beautiful transformation. Japan, India and Australia have national butterflies that represent their country. Malaysia also picks Rajah Brooke’s birdwing (Scientific name: Trogonoptera brookiana) as the poster boy due to its striking colours. Birdwings are named for their exceptional size, angular wings, and bird-like flight.

Rajah Brooke's Birdwing (Trogonoptera brookiana brookiana)
Rajah Brooke’s Birdwing (Trogonoptera brookiana brookiana) is the national butterfly of Malaysia and also the most well-known butterfly in Malaysia

As the most well-known butterfly in Malaysia, Rajah Brooke’s birdwing has large angular wings decorated with tooth-shaped ‘electric green’ bands on a velvet black background, and a splash of metallic blue markings on the underside of its wings. This national beauty also lives in Borneo (an island shared by three countries, i.e. East Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia).

Two Rajah Brooke's Birdwing (Trogonoptera brookiana brookiana) sipping water around creek area under the shade
Rajah Brooke’s Birdwing (Trogonoptera brookiana brookiana) likes to sip water around creek area under the shade

Kinabalu Birdwing, the Sabahan Butterfly

However, Sabah is unique, so we always have Sabahan version of everything. Kinabalu Birdwing (Scientific subspecies name: Troides andromache andromache) should be the icon of Sabah because: (1) its black and yellow colours are the main colours of traditional costumes of Kadazan, the largest indigenous group of Sabah, (2) Kinabalu Birdwing is only found around Mount Kinabalu and Crocker Range of Sabah, and (3) its bird-like flight movement reminds us of Sumazau dance. Most entomologists would agree with me that this endemic Borneo birdwing is truly a Sabah butterfly.

Borneo or Kinabalu Birdwing Butterfly (Troides andromache andromache) sipping nectar from flowers
Kinabalu Birdwing Butterfly (Troides andromache andromache) is a montane butterfly lives between 1,000 to 2,000 Metres above sea level. Kinabalu Birdwing a large butterfly with a forewing length of about 65 mm (male) or 85 mm (female). The male (right) is black, yellow, and grey in colour, lower forewing with a band of large greyish distal spots dusted with yellow, while the female (left) has additional brown and white scaling on the forewing. The hindwing differs from the male in the band of large, black discal / postdiscal spots.

The Kinabalu Birdwing (Troides andromache) is a large (wingspan of female can reach 18.5cm (7.28 inches), the size of a small plate) but elusive butterfly, and its life remains pretty much a mystery. For example, why it chooses to live in cloud forest between 1,500 to 2,000 metres above sea level, a cold and misty environment which is harsh to most butterflies.

Male and female Borneo or Kinabalu Birdwing Butterfly (Troides andromache andromache)
Female (left) and Male (right) Kinabalu Birdwing Butterfly (Troides andromache andromache). They are rare endemic species of Borneo island. Right: The upper forewing of male is entirely black with a violet sheen. The hindwing is almost entirely yellow with black scaling narrowly over the veins, as a broad inner margin, and as large fringe spots producing an edentate submarginal band.

Kinabalu Birdwing has four other sister species in Borneo. All of them are sexually dimorphic (means male and female have different look).

  1. Common Birdwing (Troides helena)
  2. Golden Birdwing (Troides amphyrysus)
  3. Miranda Birdwing (Troides miranda)
  4. Mountain Birdwing (Troides cuneifera)
Golden Birdwing (Troides amphrysus ) from Kinabatangan and Common Birdwing (Troides helena) from Poring
Left: Golden Birdwing (Troides amphrysus) from Kinabatangan, Right: Common Birdwing (Troides helena) from Poring in mating mood. Though the colours of all Borneo birdwing species are almost the same, they have subtitle difference in wing pattern and geographical distribution. For example, Golden Birdwing is a lowland species.

All Borneo birdwing species look the same to casual eyes. Unlike the other Borneo Birdwings, the females of Kinabalu Birdwing have white forewings with a black band on the edge of their wing. The males have black forewings and on the underside a number of white arrowhead bands.

Families of Borneo Butterflies

It has been estimated that there are about 950 species of butterflies in Borneo (from 10 families) and 81 of them are endemic (only found in Borneo). As of 2020, the family Lycaenidae has the most endemics, with 42 species, followed by Nymphalidae (15), Hesperiidae (9), Pieridae (6), Papilionidae (5) and Riodinidae (4).

Bornean Jezebel (Delias eumolpe eumolpe) butterfly
Bornean Jezebel (Delias eumolpe eumolpe) is another marvelous butterfly species of Borneo and it’s hyper-endemic to Crocker Range Park

Every year in May, over 40+ Kadazandusun and Murut girls from different districts of Sabah line-up during Kaamatan (harvest festival) to compete for the State-level Unduk Ngadau title (Miss Harvest Festival). Probably we need a beauty pageant for our butterflies too. Don’t worry about the scientific names of their families and species (in brackets), just enjoy the riot of colours from these flying gems.

Butterflies of Sabah Borneo in Papilionidae family. Top left: Common Bluebottle (Graphium sarpedon), Top right: The Great Mormon (female) (Menelaides memnon memnon), Bottom left: Tailed Jay (Graphium agamemnon agamemnon), Bottom right: Green Dragontail (Lamproptera meges meges)
Butterflies of Sabah Borneo in Papilionidae family. Top left: Common Bluebottle (Graphium sarpedon), Top right: The Great Mormon (female) (Menelaides memnon memnon), Bottom left: Tailed Jay (Graphium agamemnon agamemnon), Bottom right: Green Dragontail (Lamproptera meges meges)

Papilionidae family has four “most”: largest, most beautiful, most studied, and well-known. There are 44 species in Borneo, which include the famous Rajah Brooke’s Birdwing and Borneo Birdwings.

Catopsilia scylla and Painted Jezebel (Delias hyparete diva), butterflies of Pieridae family
Left: Catopsilia scylla from Kota Kinabalu wetland mangrove, and Right: Painted Jezebel (Delias hyparete diva) are butterflies of Pieridae family

Butterflies of Pieridae family are mostly medium-sized with yellow, white or orange colour. 41 species live in Borneo. They are often called whites, yellows or sulphurs in common names according to their colours.

Butterflies of Sabah Borneo in Nymphalidae family
Sabah butterflies in Nymphalidae family. Top left: Bornean Oakleaf (Kallima buxtoni), Top right: Malay Lacewing (Cethosia hypsea), Bottom left: The Yellow Glassy Tiger (Parantica aspasia aspasia), Bottom right: Common Three Ring (Ypthima pandocus sertorius)

Nymphalidae is one of the largest butterfly family and there are 136 species in Borneo. They are diverse in shapes, colours and patterns. They are also known as the four-footed butterfly because their front pair of legs is non-functional. These are strange butterflies that are often found sipping on fallen fruits, plant sap and animal dropping.

Sabah butterflies in Danaidae family
Sabah butterflies in Danaidae family. Left: Tree Nymph (Idea stolli), Top right: Ideopsis gaura, Bottom right: Mangrove Tree Nymph / Paper Kite (Idea leuconoe)

27 species of Borneo butterflies belong to Danaidae family. Many of them have black veins and numerous oval black dots on their translucent white wings. They are slow flyers and said to be the lightest butterfly in the world. For example, Ashy-white Tree Nymph (Idea stolli) is named as “Kupu-kupu Surat” (Mail Butterfly) locally because it glides gracefully in the air like a floating paper.

Sabah butterflies in Hesperiidae family
Butterflies of Sabah in Hesperiidae family. Left: Burara gomata lalita, Right: Yellow Banded Awl (Hasora schoenherr chuza)

With a family of 3,000 species (over 200 species in Borneo), Hesperiidae, which is also known as the Skippers, is the largest family. These moth-like butterflies are usually small and dull coloured.

Borneo butterflies of Lycaenidae family
Borneo butterflies of Lycaenidae family. Left: Zeltus amasa maximinianus, Right: Miletus ancon gigas from Crocker Range Park. A common name for Lycaenidae family is the Blues as most of them are blue in colour.

Impressed by the colours and diversity of Sabah butterflies? Kinabalu Birdwing is always my Unduk Ngadau. Who’s yours?

Differences between Butterflies and Moths

Many people can’t tell the difference between butterfly and moth. Let’s do the fun quiz below and see how good you are (ask your kids to join too). They are from Sabah and you may have seen two or more of them.

Quiz: Moths vs Butterflies
Quiz! Guess which one is Moth or Butterfly. Scroll down to next picture for answers.
Butterfly meme: Is this a butterfly or moth?
Answers for Butterfly vs Moth quiz above. 1) Giant Atlas Moth (Attacus atlas), 2) Butterfly (Junonia iphita viridis), 3) Butterfly (Cynitia cocytina ambalika, male), 4) Tropical Swallowtail Moth (Lyssa zampa), 5) Butterfly (Chersonesia risa cyanee), 6) Emperor Moth from Deramakot Forest

Did you get all the answers right? There are three easy ways to distinguish them:

  1. Butterflies are day-flying insects and moths are active at night.
  2. When resting, the wings of butterflies are folded upright (but butterfly outstretches its wings for sun basking sometimes), while moth’s wings are open horizontally.
  3. Butterfly has a pair of plain and club-like antenna. Moths are heavy-bodied with feathery antennas.

Interesting Facts about Butterflies

Here are some truths about butterflies, which are as fascinating as their colours.

Great Mormon (Papilio Memnon)
Great Mormon (Papilio Memnon)

Interesting Facts about Butterflies

Here are some truths about butterflies, which are as fascinating as their colours.

  1. The largest butterflies of Sabah are Golden Birdwing (Triodes amphrysus) and Rajah Brooke’s Birdwing (Trogonoptera brookiana), with a forewing of 8.5 cm (3.35 inches) in length.
  2. Lesser Grass Blue (Zizina otis) is the smallest butterfly of Sabah, with a wingspan of only 1.5cm.
  3. Caterpillar has crazy growth rate. For example, the larva of Great Mormon butterfly can grow from 0.3cm to 7cm in 3 weeks. For that speed and scale, a new-born human baby can grow into a 40-foot-tall giant within a month!
  4. From egg to adult stage, most butterflies have a life span of only 1 to 3 months, depending on the species, some can live up to a year.
  5. There is a butterfly called Kadazan Lass or Bornean Sapphire (Heliophorus kiana), a Borneo endemic, so are Kadazan Small Tiger (Dodona elvira) and Kinabalu Gem (Poritia phormedon).
  6. Approximately five per cent (i.e. 50 species) of Sabah butterflies are toxic, so having butterflies in your stomach can be a bad experience.
  7. There are about 17,500 butterfly species in the world, and Peru has the most species, which is about 3,700. Iceland has 0 species.
  8. Butterflies smell with their feet, which have taste receptors to help them locating food.
  9. The world’s largest butterfly farm is located in Penang.
  10. Butterflies evolved from moths around 190 million years ago. Both co-existed with the dinosaurs before.
  11. More recent findings suggest that butterflies may have existed before flowering plants. Another chicken and egg question?
Group of Eurema hecabe hecabe butterflies sipping mineral-rich water at river bank of Poring Hot Springs
Group of Eurema hecabe hecabe butterflies sipping mineral-rich water at river bank of Poring Hot Springs

Where to See Borneo Butterflies in Sabah?

Butterflies are everywhere. In general, you can see rich variety of wild butterflies in a garden full of blooming flowers and adjacent to a forest. Areas such as Tun Fuad Stephen Park (Bukit Padang), Crocker Range Park and Kinabalu National Park (625 species) are good places to start butterfly watching. If you want to see a lot of rare butterflies with the least effort, you can visit a butterfly garden (entry fee applied). Note: most butterflies in captivity have broken wings, not so great for photography.

Polyura moori saida (Malayan Nawab) and Prothoe franck borneensis (The Blue Begum)
Left: Malayan Nawab (Polyura moori saida) sipping chicken dropping in Kawang Forest, Right: The Blue Begum (Prothoe franck borneensis)

1. Poring Hot Springs

Most visitors aim for soaking in the popular sulphur springs and skip butterfly farm inside the park. Poring Butterfly Farm is started in 1989 with 4 main components, namely, exhibition gallery, large enclosure, breeding room and nursery of larvae’s food plant. Only the first two are open to public. You can see the specimens of most, if not all, Borneo endemic butterflies in the gallery. There are information panels and insect display boxes along the walkway. No guiding service is provided.

The Exhibition Gallery and Enclosure of Poring Butterfly Farm
The Exhibition Gallery and Enclosure of Poring Butterfly Farm

The garden and streams outside the enclosure are the magnet for wild butterflies from pristine forest nearby. Besides butterflies feeding among the flowers, you can find group of butterflies (majority are male) congregate at stream banks for puddling, a drinking party for butterflies to sip natural salts from the mineral-rich creek, which contains vital nutrients for their reproduction. Rajah Brooke’s Birdwing prefers to do this in shady area.

2. Kipandi Butterfly Park

Kipandi Butterfly Park is similar to Poring Butterfly Farm, but with more extensive and exotic collection of local and foreign insect specimens in their exhibition hall. The visitors can check out the pupa and caterpillars in their nursery. This site offers better experience for an education tour because they also have native orchids and pitcher plants in their garden.

Education tour, butterfly nursery, exhibition hall and native orchid garden of Kipandi Butterfly Garden
Education tour, butterfly nursery, exhibition hall and native orchid garden of Kipandi Butterfly Garden

Best Time for Butterfly Watching

Butterflies are more active when there is sunlight, so 9am to 3pm during sunny day would be the most suitable time for butterfly watching in Sabah. Most butterflies need an air temperature of above 15°C (60°F) to fly. If they get too cold, they are unable to fly, so in cold days, you would see them rest on a leaf and bask with their wings out-stretched like a solar panel. Nevertheless, some species such as Kinabalu Birdwing can remain active in a cool and misty day.

Conservation of Borneo Butterflies

Same as other wildlife, butterflies need undisturbed habitat and reliable food sources to survive. Global warming, use of pesticides in agriculture, and forest clearance are threatening their well-being. In 2018, Kinabalu Birdwing was listed as ‘Vulnerable’ on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), as a result of the large-scale forest clearance in Pinosuk Plateau (around Mesilau) of Mount Kinabalu. Therefore, some proactive measures are needed in place to prevent them moving toward extinction.

Rajah Brooke's Birdwing and Borneo / Kinabalu Birdwing butterflies
Rajah Brooke’s Birdwing (left) and Borneo Birdwing (right) butterflies are fully protected species by Malaysian law

Protection by Malaysian Law

Butterflies are fun to watch but you could be caged for catching a protected species. About 30 Malaysian butterfly species (e.g. Rajah Brooke’s Birdwing, Borneo Birdwings, Ashy Tree Nymph) are categorised as the fully protected species in Wildlife Protected Species Act 2010 [Act 716]. You can be fined up to RM30,000 or jailed up to one year, or both, for capturing, collecting or trading them illegally (without a permit or license).

Left: The Black and White Helen (Papilio nephelus albolineatus) is sipping nectar from Red Javanese Ixora (Ixora javanica), Right: Aeron’s Rod or Brazilian Tea (Local Name: Bunga Malam) is an evergreen plant loved by butterflies such as this Eurema hecabe hecabe

Feeding the Butterflies!

Why not inviting these little fairies into your backyard? You can plant plenty of flowers to conserve and attract these colourful visitors. Evergreen plant such as Red Javanese Ixora (Todong Periuk), Indian Snakeweed (Bunga Malam), Red hot cat’s tail (Ekor kucing) and Hibiscus are some of the common nectaring flowers of butterflies. Or just plant any flower you love, the more variety, the better.

Left: Clipper (Parthenos sylvia borneensis), Right: Common Red Harlequin (Paralaxita telesia)
Left: Clipper (Parthenos sylvia borneensis), Right: Common Red Harlequin (Paralaxita telesia)

You can target different types of butterflies with selected flowers. For Kinabalu Birdwing in highland, Orange balsams (Impatiens walleriana). Yellow daylilies (Hemerocallis spp.), Mussaenda, Lantana, Busy Lizzie, Poinsettia (Eurphorbia spp.) and Hibiscus (Rosa sinensis) are the flowers they feed on. It’s even superb if you cultivate Aristolochia foveolata, a liana that can serve as a foodplant for larva of Kinabalu Birdwing. FYI, Swallowtail & Birdwing Butterfly Trust and The Rotary Club of Kota Kinabalu are training homestay operators in Kampung Kiau to plant this liana.

Borneo or Kinabalu Birdwing butterflies feeding on nectaring flowers
Borneo or Kinabalu Birdwing butterflies feeding on nectaring flowers

References & Acknowledgement

Specimens of endemic Borneo butterflies
Specimens of endemic Borneo butterflies

Special thanks to members of Butterfly of Borneo Facebook Group (especially Potanthus Ttp), Dr. Stephen Sutton, and Dr. Arthur Y.C. Chung for the identification and information on Sabah butterflies. (Disclaimer: This acknowledgement doesn’t imply that they adopt this article)

Photos taken in Sabah, Malaysia Borneo

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