Borneo – Small Wonders

Common tree nymph (Idea stolli) Photo by John Tomsett

Dear Readers, there are so many splendid insects lurking in the rainforests of Borneo that I spent much of my time swivelling around to watch a butterfly float past, or stopping abruptly when I realised that a twig was in fact alive. The common tree nymph, pictured above, is a real showstopper in flight: it has such large wings, and glides past so gracefully, that you might almost mistake it for a tiny owl, or a fairy. Much of Borneo resembles being in a butterfly house, complete with steamed-up glasses, and this species helps by sitting prettily on a leaf and posing for photos, unlike some other species which require much more activity.

Large Snow Flat (Tagiades gana) Photo by John Tomsett

Snow flat butterflies are widespread throughout Asia, but the large snow flat has this interesting white colouration at the bottom of the hind wings, which makes it look as if it is fading from colour into monochrome.

Clipper (Parthenos sylvia) (Photo by John Tomsett)

The clipper butterfly was one of those fast-flyers that proved so difficult to photograph for most of us. They look to me as if they are rowing through the air with fast, shallow strokes, unlike the wafty, balloon-like flight of the tree-nymph. It is a member of the Nymphalidae, the same family as our red admiral and painted lady butterflies and the North American monarch butterfly: all of these are migratory insects, so it’s no surprise that the clipper is powerful in the air. It was named for the clipper ships of the nineteenth century, which were built for the speedy transportation of commodities such as tea.

Spotted judy (Abisara geza niya) Photo by John Tomsett

The spotted judy is a member of a most unusual butterfly family called the Riodinidae. Butterflies in this group are commonly known as ‘metalmarks’ because of the metallic-looking marks on their wings, but they are also known as the ‘punch and judy’ family: many of the species are known as ‘judy’. Nearly all the species are found in the tropical new world (and amongst them is a carnivorous caterpillar), but there are (obviously) species in Asia as well, of which the spotted judy is a fine example. These are rare creatures, usually found flittering in forest glades. The UK has a single species from this family, the Duke of Burgundy, which is also vanishingly rare.

Common sailor (Neptis hylas) Photo by John Tomsett

The common sailor is another Nymphalid, and reminds me rather of a purple emperor. I wonder if those black and white stripes mimic the patterns of light and shadow in the depths of the forest?

Malay yeoman (Cirrochroa emalea emalea) Photo by John Tomsett

The Malay yeoman is often spotted on footpaths, drinking from the tiny puddles left in the indentations from many walking boots. I love it when I read about the behaviour of a species, and it’s then verified by what the creature is actually doing. Or maybe the butterfly read the book and decided to do what was expected?

Of course, it wasn’t all pretty butterflies, and we were dreading the appearance of one invertebrate in particular.

Tiger leech (Photo by Jan Young)

This rather pretty creature is a tiger leech (Haemadipsa picta). It is a relatively large leech and preys mainly on medium-sized mammals, including any human beings unlucky enough to encounter it. From my research, it appears that it lives on branches up to a metre above ground, and favours the arms, shoulders, neck and even head of anything passing underneath. This one was on the ground on a leaf however, so they are obviously not that fussy about what part of the body they attach to. The mouth is actually at the narrow end, while the stripey part is what swells up. We were all protected by our leech socks, which made us look like slightly out-of-condition Morris dancers, though without the bells. What a picture of elegance we were!

Leechsock-wearing humans (Photo by Jan Young)

In the forest at Tabin the air was alive with the prettiest burgundy-coloured dragonflies.

Red dragonfly (Neurothemis sp.) Photo by John Tomsett

Dragonflies mating – Photo by Jan Young

As a group, these dragonflies are known as parasols, and I love the way that the dark red of their wings fades to transparency at the tip. They were everywhere as we walked through the forest, and the smaller males seemed to be guarding little territories above the drainage ditches, occasionally darting to see off a rival or to investigate a female. The eyes on the head the female above look to me as if they’ve been carved out of mahogany and polished to a high shine.

And of course there were spiders…

Golden Orb spider (Photo by Jan Young)

I had met the golden orb spider before in the Spider exhibit at London Zoo, so it was a pleasure to see her here in her native habitat. She is a very large spider, probably no smaller than my hand, but she lives outside and eats many biting insects, so she is something of a blessing. People in the tropics have learned that co-existing with the small predatory animals in their houses, be they spiders or geckos,  brings benefits in the form of fewer pesky mosquitoes.

And finally, how about this amazing creature?

Thorny stick insect (Aretaon asperrimus) (Photo by John Tomsett)

The thorny stick insect is perfectly camouflaged as a dead twig, and little else is known about it. Probably, like most stick insects, it is capable of reproducing without mating, though most of this family can also produce offspring through sexual reproduction. The one in the photo is likely to be a female: the males are smaller and thinner. The creature is mostly nocturnal (we found this one on a night walk) and in spite of their fearsome appearance they are the most inoffensive and gentle invertebrates that you could hope to meet, with a purely vegetarian diet. They have become popular as pets, but like all tropical creatures require specialised care to make sure that the humidity and temperature are just right. I remember seeing chameleons for sale in a shop in Manchester, and being concerned that whoever bought them should be aware how delicate and difficult to look after they were. After I had dissuaded two potential customers who were enticed by their little faces and those strange eyes that point in different directions, I was gently but firmly ushered to the exit and sent on my way. I often wonder what happened to them.

Lantern bug (Photo by John Tomsett)

And so, we are nearly at the end of our Borneo trip. Just one more creature to meet, in the forest reserve of Tabin, and then we’ll be home in the less exotic but no less interesting environment of the County Roads in East Finchley. See you tomorrow!



3 thoughts on “Borneo – Small Wonders

  1. Ann Bronkhorst

    I’ve loved reading all your Borneo blogs and seeing such excellent photos, some shared from fellow travellers. Spiders almost the size of one’s hand are a bit alarming and leeches definitely so but what an experience! Your adventurous father would have been delighted that you had these chances.

    1. Bug Woman

      Dad loved to fascinate us (and horrify my Mum) with tales of the enormous spiders and snakes that he’d met while working in the forests of Venezuela but, as a man somewhat given to exaggeration, we could never be sure of the exact real dimensions of the animal that he was describing 🙂


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