A butterfly that is native to India and South-East Asia has been spotted in the UAE for the first time.
Two natural history enthusiasts found the common banded awl (Hasora chromus) in parks in Dubai and Abu Dhabi in January and April.
The Environment Agency Abu Dhabi (EAD) said it was a "significant find" and would be recognised as the first record of the insect in the UAE.
“I saw this butterfly in Mushrif Park in January,” said Angela Manthorpe, a member of the Dubai Natural History Group who first came to the UAE in 1992 from the UK. “How did it get here? It wasn’t recorded in books about the UAE’s butterflies and occurs in south India.”
On April 28, Indian resident Kiran Kannan also spotted the butterfly in an Abu Dhabi park. The finds were made independently. The two took photos and made further studies before it was confirmed it was the common banded awl.
The EAD said it was a significant discovery, with Mr Kannan donating a specimen to their entomology collection.
"We are honoured to acquire this unique specimen in the EAD’s invertebrate collection," said Dr Salim Javed, section manager at the agency's terrestrial assessment and conservation division.
Nocturnal insect evades nature spotters
"This record is a significant contribution to the insect fauna of the UAE, and the information related to this species will be databased in the information management system as the UAE’s first record of the common banded awl."
The butterfly, which belongs to the skipper family, has brown wings, large eyes and can be decorated with a white stripe or other white markings. “It is known for its fast and agile flight. It can be quite challenging to photograph, especially with its wings fully open, as it tends to move swiftly,” Mr Kannan said.
The butterfly is most active at dusk and night, while during the day it is able to hide by using its silk to secure leaves together for protection. Even during the butterfly’s larval stage, it uses silk threads to descend from the tree and move in unison to the next available tree “reminiscent of a co-ordinated march”, Mr Kannan said.
“In the face of danger or disturbance, the larvae display a remarkable survival strategy. They simply drop down to the ground and seek refuge in the surrounding grass or vegetation."
It is believed the butterfly entered the UAE on its host plant, the millettia pinnata – also called the pongam or oil tree. The tree is typically imported from Asia and used extensively in Dubai for residential community and roadside planting and is available at the plant souq in Dubai.
Mr Kannan and Ms Manthorpe also found caterpillars and pupae, a sign that the butterfly is breeding in the UAE.
Gary Feulner, chairman of the Dubai Natural History Group, said it has been an “exceptionally good spring” in the UAE for butterfly action. Other enthusiasts have provided information about two rare butterflies not seen for several decades, which have returned this season. The milder weather has also allowed aficionados to spend more time outdoors meaning there is more opportunity to track new and unusual plants and wildlife.
A further element to the story, Mr Feulner said, is the important role played by amateur enthusiasts such as Ms Manthorpe and Mr Kannan in shedding light on the natural world and showing how much remains to be discovered. The work of groups such as the Dubai and Abu Dhabi-based Emirates Natural History Group is also crucial in this field.
"Angela and Kiran didn't just post their photos and move on," he said. "They recognised that they had seen something out of the ordinary, and each took the initiative to investigate methodically and to contact people who might know more,” said Mr Feulner, who was joint lead author with Binish Roobas of 2021’s Butterflies of the UAE.
“A great deal of our knowledge of the UAE's flora and fauna has resulted from individual effort, not institutional effort, and that includes not just single records, but comprehensive studies as well. Newcomers to the UAE often aren't aware of that history.”
There are more than 55 species of butterfly in the UAE, both native and introduced. Many species and plants in the country are not indigenous. "From what we know about the habits and ecology of this butterfly, it seems unlikely to spread to natural environments in the UAE and is likely to be restricted even in artificial environments, so I would rate its presence as very low on the list of potential environmental problems," Mr Feulner said.
The question now is whether the common banded awl will survive the UAE’s summer heat.
“We are waiting to see,” Ms Manthorpe said. “Come the end of the summer we will all be out looking for it.”