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The Tiger that Plays Possum!

Plain Tiger Butterfly, Kabini

While visitors to the forests of Kabini are always advised to keep an eye out for a tiger lurking in the underbrush, not all tigers in the area are big cats slinking past on a predatory evening prowl. There are also tiny little ones who don’t just eschew the dark, but go out of their way to be visible when they traipse around by day, looking for a convivial peg or two of honey. Welcome to the world of the Plain Tiger Butterfly, one of the most widely dispersed specimens of butterfly in the world. These little ‘tigers’ wear their tawny markings proudly, and fly low at a stately speed to advertise their presence to all potential predators. While those in the know avoid them like the plague, those who are still wet behind the ears often make the mistake of attacking them, but that’s a mistake they never repeat again. When attacked, the Plain Tiger plays possum, and lies ‘dead’ oozing a nauseating liquid that smells terrible and tastes worse, sending the potential diner reeling for a barf bag. The tough, leathery skin acts as armour, and once released, the butterfly ‘miraculously’ recovers to resume its quest for the floral ambrosia it loves so much. In fact, this is such an effective defence mechanism that other forms of edible butterflies try to mimic the Plain Tiger’s looks and demeanour to escape predation. This beautiful, yet spunky creature has been around a rather long time, with a 3500 year old Egyptian fresco in Luxor being celebrated as the oldest artistic impression of the Plain Tiger. When one watches, enraptured as this far from ‘plain’ being flutters gracefully on its honey-quest, one is reminded of Blake’s immortal words, albeit written for the big cat its named after, “Tiger, tiger burning bright, in the forests of the night…”

Photograph: Isaac Kehimkar Story: Rajesh Ramaswamy



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