In the midst of the Western Ghats mountain range, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, conservationist Sammilan Shetty is working to protect the over 300 butterfly species that call the area home.
“In recent years, we have seen a drastic decline in the butterfly population,” Shetty says at TEDxNITKSurathkal. Habitat destruction, massive, frequent forest fires and the use of pesticides are putting these creatures in danger, he says, and he’s worried that they may soon disappear.
This is why Shetty built the SS Butterfly Park, a 7-acre refuge for butterflies of the Western Ghats. The park offers habitat, food and plants to pollinate, and also educates the public about these insects’ role in maintaining “the exceptionally high level of biological diversity [of the Western Ghats].”
“So far we’ve recorded 136 species of butterflies in the park,” Shetty says, including the Malabar banded peacock, which The New Indian Express called the “most beautiful butterfly of India.”
When planning the park, Shetty made sure to include a variety of butterfly larval host plants, he says, to please each species.
“Every butterfly has its own host plant — and they are very strict about their host plant; if you remove any caterpillar from its host, it will die out from hunger.” For example, the mottled emigrant butterfly, Catopsilia pyranthe, likes to lay its eggs on the Senna alata plant, Shetty says.
Shetty is fascinated with butterfly social dynamics, especially a relationship between butterflies of the Lycaenidae family and ants. “Instead of attacking [the caterpillar of Oakblue butterflies], the ants actually protect the caterpillar,” he says. “The caterpillar is known to produce a sweet secretion that is given to the ants as a protection fee,” he says. The secretion feeds the ant, Shetty says, but also chemically influences the ants to stay with the caterpillars through the pupal stage, with a cocktail that “likely contains chemicals that impact dopamine levels in ant brains.”
He hopes the park will bring awareness to the many spectacular butterflies of the Western Ghats and inspire others to protect them.
To learn more, watch Shetty’s entire talk below: