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Volume 45, Number 5September/October 1994

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Butterflies of Egypt

Written and photographed by Torben B. Larsen

Some 3500 years ago, an Egyptian artist in Thebes—today's Luxor—sat down at his work table. Before him lay an odd assortment of dead ducks, flowers, plants, insects and fish that had been collected on the banks of the Nile earlier that morning.

The artist was painting a fresco of a duck-hunting scene in the tomb of Nebamun, a high and powerful court official in charge of grain collecting and storage. He had already finished the painting of Nebamun in his boat—in the classical Egyptian pose, his wife shown in diminutive size sitting between his legs. Now he had to fill in the details.

This was the part of the job he liked best. When painting gods and men, he was hemmed in by conventions: Everything had to be stylized. Even stalks of papyrus and certain sacred animals had to be drawn according to stylistic conventions, or the priests would be angered, and that would mean an end to his commissions. But when it came to nature and its creatures, he could give his creative talents free rein.

The artist surveyed the table and fixed his gaze on a large brown butterfly, the Common Tiger (Danaus chrysippus). Its body was deep black with numerous white dots, matching the black-and-white of the wingtips. He painted seven of them in the fresco. The black head and thorax with their minute white dots fascinated the artist so much that he extended the pattern to the abdomen in his painting, though in reality the butterfly's abdomen is brown.

The anonymous Theban artist left us with the earliest recognizable painting of a butterfly; living examples of the species he painted can usually be seen flying among the flowers in the splendidly laid-out gardens of the Winter Palace Hotel at Luxor, not far from where the artist's assistants caught them 3500 years ago.

It is not surprising that the artist chose as a motif the Common Tiger, one of the largest and most beautiful insects in Egypt and presumably as common then as it is now. But it is somewhat ironic that the oldest painting of a butterfly should be from Egypt, one of the poorest habitats for butterflies anywhere in the world.

Only 58 species of butterfly have ever been recorded from Egypt, compared with, say, 154 from tiny Lebanon. Even the figure of 58 is somewhat inflated, because several of the species are only found in the highest mountains of the Sinai or in the Gebel Elba, a mountainous region of Egypt's extreme southeast, and some are migrants that do not maintain permanent populations anywhere in Egypt.

But though the Egyptian butterfly fauna is limited, it is not without appeal. On the contrary, it is curious that there are any butterflies at all in one of the most arid countries in the world, where significant vegetation is found only along the Nile and in its delta. Not only is Egypt dry, but its summers are very hot and winters cold, making butterfly survival even more precarious. Also, Egypt's geographical position, bridging Africa and Asia and bordering the Mediterranean, allows flora and fauna to be drawn from three of the world's major biogeographical regions: the Afrotropical, the Oriental and the temperate Palearctic. All these factors combine to make the limited Egyptian butterfly fauna more interesting than its numbers would lead one to expect.

The Common Tiger painted 3500 years ago is a tropical butterfly found throughout Asia and Africa, extending to the eastern Mediterranean. A closely related species is found in tropical Africa. As a migrant, it has great colonizing powers and it is not unusual to meet specimens making their way across the most extreme deserts, continuing till they find an oasis where breeding opportunities exist.

The caterpillar of the Common Tiger, like that of the Monarch butterfly of North America, feeds on plants of the milkweed family {Asdqpiadaceae), which contain powerful toxic alkaloids. These are stored in the butterfly's tissues, making it both poisonous and foul-tasting to birds and other predator. The female of another butterfly species, the Diadem ( Hypolimnas misippus), has evolved into a near-perfect copy of the common Tiger, thus escaping attack by predators that already know from bitter experience to avoid the Common Tiger. The Diadem has the same distribution as the Tiger, but has been introduced also to the Caribbean area, probably with the slave trade. It is an irregular visitor to Egypt, sometimes skipping a year, but when it does appear, it can become quite numerous in the many parks of Cairo. The prettiest member of this group of butterflies is probably the Yellow Pansy (Junonia hierta), which is not seen in Egypt every year.

One might expect Egypt to have a number of tropical African butterflies, but the winter climate is too cold to permit the permanent survival of most tropical species. The so-called Afrotropical species are either temporary migrants or species hardy enough to colonize much of the Mediterranean. The intricately patterned Zebra Blue (Syntarucus pirithous) is the best established of the true African butterflies. Most of the others are rare or found only in the Gebel Elba.

Species from Asia, the so-called Oriental butterflies, are in short supply: There are only three, one of which is a migrant and hardly relevant. However, the two other species are interesting. The Asian Grass Blue (Zizeeria karsandra) is found from the Pacific islands throughout Asia to eastern Arabia, Iraq, the Levant and North Africa. It is a tiny butterfly, very common in Egypt; in Algeria, Morocco and the rest of Africa, it is displaced by the African Grass Blue. This is a most curious distribution pattern, since butterflies of the Oriental region usually do not penetrate farther west than the Indian subcontinent.

A close relative of this species, Zizina otis, is one of the most surprising butterflies in all of Africa. It is widespread and common throughout Asia, as far west as Karachi in Pakistan. But it is also found in the oasis of Siwa in Egypt, in the middle of the desert near the Libyan border. There are two possible explanations for this isolated population: Either it arrived from India as a stowaway, with a new form of animal feedstuff, or else it has been marooned in Siwa since the age of the dinosaurs. Experts would dearly like to know which is true, but so far there is no way to tell for sure.

So the tropical species, be they African, Oriental or both, are not really at home in Egypt. But then, neither are the Palearctic butterflies, from the temperate zones of Europe and the Near East. There are 22 of these species, by far the largest group of Egyptian butterflies, but most types are found only high in the Sinai mountains or in the narrow coastal strip between Alexandria and Libya, or are very rare or migratory.

The Small Copper (Lycaena phlaeas) is an example. Though not uncommon in Sinai, it has only very occasionally been found in the delta and on the coast. One species in this group, though, has become very successful in Egypt: the Small Cabbage White (Artogeia rapae), which feeds on wild and cultivated cabbages. It is one of the most common butterflies in Egypt, found all the way up the Nile to Aswan and in desert oases. When the Egyptian government starts a new irrigation scheme in the desert, the Small Cabbage White manages to establish itself there within months. Together with two tropical species, the Pea Blue (Lampides boeticus) and the Pomegranate Playboy (Deudorix livid), the Cabbage White is one of the few butterfly species that qualify as pests. The caterpillar of the Pea Blue feeds on many species of beans and peas, while that of the Pomegranate Playboy can spoil a wide range of fruits.

Many of the butterflies discussed so far could not live permanently in Egypt were it not for the vegetation of the Nile Valley and Delta. In fact, 40 percent of all the butterflies recorded in Egypt are known to migrate.

Though the presence in Egypt of all these species is not necessarily dependent on migration, more than a dozen are regular visitors that cannot survive in the country permanently. The Caper White (Anaphaeis aurota) is an example. It does not arrive in Egypt every year, but when it does it may breed in incredible numbers, stripping all available food plants and flying in swarms of millions. The Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) is a different type of migrant. It comes from Europe in autumn to benefit from Egypt's mild winter, and returns to Europe in March and April. Its close relative, the Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui), has much the same pattern.

The highly specialized desert butterflies are true Egyptian residents. Deserts are deeply inimical to those butterflies whose caterpillars depend on green plants and are very choosy about which plants they can eat. All desert butterflies have had to develop special survival mechanisms to cope with a stressful and unpredictable environment. Here pride of place is taken by the Leopard Butterflies (Apharitis acamas), which can live in the driest desert tracts. To do so, they have developed a close relationship with ants. The caterpillar produces a honey-like substance that the ants enjoy. In return, the ants permit the caterpillar to share their food, and even to eat the immature stages of the ants. In this way the butterfly has become independent of green food plants.

Other butterflies have developed the ability to spend many years in the chrysalis or pupa stage, waiting for the rare rain squalls that set the desert blooming. A tiny butterfly chrysalis can survive up to four years in the desert without moving or taking nourishment—an amazing feat. It is not surprising that relatively few butterflies have been able to adapt in this manner to desert conditions.

The Common Tiger, as Egypt's largest and most visible butterfly, began this story; let the Grass Jewel (Freyeria trochylus) end it. This is Egypt's smallest butterfly. In the desert near the Pyramids of Giza, I once caught a dwarf specimen, barely seven millimeters (a quarter of an inch) across both wings. Yet this creature, tiny though it is, has an immense distribution range that stretches from Australia and New Guinea through much of Asia, the Middle East, the Balkans and all of Africa.

Torben Larsen is the author of Butterflies of Egypt, available from the American University in Cairo Press and from Apollo Books in Steenstrup, Denmark, and of The Butterflies of Kenya and Their Natural History.

This article appeared on pages 24-27 of the September/October 1994 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1994 images.