Sikkim, Dec 4: Sonam Wangchuk Lepcha, from Dzongu in the northern part of Sikkim, started watching butterflies and taking pictures of them, he was not taken very seriously by the people around him. But now his hobby has led to the discovery of a new butterfly species, whose closest relatives are in southeastern China, close to Hong Kong.
Since 2016, Wangchuk Lepcha has been photographing butterflies and sending their pictures to entomologists based at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) in Bengaluru to identify and upload them on to the ‘Butterflies of India’ website they maintain. In 2020, he captured and contributed the picture of a golden yellow butterfly with brown borders and spots.
All the observations submitted to this website are reviewed by an expert panel, including Krushnamegh Kunte of the NCBS, who counts Lepidoptera or butterflies as one of his main research interests.
“While reviewing Sonam’s image, I realized that this was a species previously unknown in India and that, in fact, this may be a new species,” says Dr Kunte.
His group requested Mr Wangchuk Lepcha to get permission from the Sikkim Forest Department to study the butterfly, and they then examined it more thoroughly.
The new species of butterfly, named the Chocolate-bordered Flitter, also carries the scientific name Zographetus dzonguensis, after Dzongu in Sikkim, the place where it was discovered. Its closest relatives are Zographetus Pangi in Guangdong, and Zographetus hainanensis in Hainan, both in southeastern China, close to Hong Kong, says Dr Kunte.
The physical appearance of the species differ slightly and the internal structures of the males also differ slightly. The details were published in a paper in Zootaxa on December 1.
“We have not done genetic studies yet but we hope to do them next year, once we are fully functional as the pandemic winds down,” Dr Kunte adds.
Wangchuk Lepcha, an author of the paper, recalls that on May 5, 2016, as he was on the way to Namprickdang, he was struck by the number of different species of butterflies he observed and tried counting them — on that evening itself, he had counted 50 different species of butterfly in that region. Since then, he has photographed more than 350 different butterflies from the Dzongu region.
“I got to hear that Lepchas from Sikkim and Darjeeling were great butterfly catchers and good at naming them in our own language, but we have forgotten all the Lepcha names for butterflies now,” Wangchuk Lepcha said in a message to The Hindu. The common Lepcha name for butterflies is thamblyok.
Wangchuk Lepcha mentions a place of historical interest near Dzongu called Blykovoo, which means “the land of butterflies”.
Attesting to the rich butterfly population in Dzongu, Dr. Kunte says that he himself had rediscovered a lost species of butterfly there in 2008, not far from the region where Wangchuk Lepcha sighted the Chocolate-bordered Flitter. “That species was the Scarce Jester (Symbrenthia silana). It’s legally protected in India under Schedule I of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, which also protects iconic animals such as the Asian elephant and snow leopard,” adds Dr. Kunte.