IUCN Red List Conservation Status: Endangered
Papilio aristophontes has no common name. The species is endemic to the forests of Anjouan, Moheli and Grande Comore, Comoro Islands. So far, the impact of subsistence agriculture has been mainly in the lowlands, but rapid population growth requires that forest reserves be designated in order to protect the wildlife, particularly on Grande Comore. The butterflies still survive in upland forests, but research is needed to study the biology and distribution of the species and to locate suitable areas of its habitat for protection.
Papilio aristophontes was originally described as a full species but was subsequently considered to be a subspecies of P. (P.) nireus, albeit very distinct (1, 5). D’Abrera, following Carcasson, recently reinstated it to full species rank (3), a recognition which concurs with the views of lepidopterists familiar with the butterfly in the wild (2,6). P. aristophontes is in the nireus group (4), and the male and female differ somewhat in appearance. The male is black with iridescent blue markings and a brown lower surface, whilst the female is brown and olive-green. The forewing length is 48-52 mm, and the wingspan is 80-90 mm. The young stages are unknown.
The male upper forewing is black with an iridescent blue median band and five blue spots. The upper hindwing is also black with an iridescent blue band, a row of blue submarginal spots, a scalloped margin to the hindwing and virtually no tail. The lower forewing is entirely blackish-brown; the lower hindwing is red-brown with black veins and a narrow cream submarginal band with a silver reflection. In the female the upper fore-and hindwings are brown with a dull olive green median band and a submarginal band of yellowish-olive lunules, continuous over both wings. The lower fore- and hindwings are red-brown with a silvery submarginal band continuous over both wings; a fawn brown median band to the hindwing with pinkish-grey scales on the outside, and a white abdominal spot.
Papilio aristophontes is endemic to the forests of the Comoro Islands, between Mozambique and Madagascar. The main stronghold is Grande Comore, but there are also populations on Moheli and Anjouan (2).
Habitat and Ecology
The four islands of the Comoros are volcanic in origin, Grande Comore being the most recent. On Grand Comore there are two uplifted areas, the volcanic massif of La Grille (1087 m) in the north, and the still active volcano of Karthala (2560 m) in the south. All the islands are characterized by moderate rainfall (1000-5000 mm per year) and soils with a very poor capacity for water retention. There are no streams or rivers on Grande Comoro, although subterranean hollows in the lava may hold water and encourage growth of forest (8). Patches of forest may still be found at low and middle altitudes e.g. near Nioumbadjou (550 m), but the main forests occur on the flanks of La Grille and Karthala up to a maximum of 1900 m. The forests on La Grille have been severely depleted by banana cultivation, but they are more extensive on Karthala, on whose western and south-western sides forest may grow at altitudes as low as 550-800 m.
Papilio aristophontes is another inhabitant of the forests of La Grille (1087 m) and Karthala (2560 m), the two volcanic regions of Grande Comore. In 1980 and 1983 it was seen flying at Oussoudjou and other places in the massif of La Grille (7, 8) and at Nioumbadjou (550 m) (8), Hantsongoma (1000 m) and other localities up to 1700 m (6) on Karthala. The species may be locally abundant, flying along the edges of clearings and paths (7). The larval feeding habits have not been documented but, like the other members of the nireus species group, the caterpillars probably feed on wild Rutaceae (4). They have also been reported on wild-growing trees of the domesticated lemon (2).
Although slash and burn agriculture is comparatively uncommon in the Comoros, the forests on Karthala and more particularly on La Grille are retreating from a more insiduous threat, the prevention of forest regeneration by the planting of a dense understorey of banana trees. Bananas are one of the staple crops of the rapidly growing population of the Comoros. The main agricultural areas are coastal and lowland, but population pressure is forcing agricultural development to altitudes of up to 1200 m (7), where bananas, guavas, vanilla and ylang ylang (Cananga oderata) can still be grown. On the smaller islands of Anjouan and Moheli there is much less high ground than on Grande Comore and therefore agriculture is even more extensive. The distinctive population of P. aristophontes on Moheli is under serious threat from agricultural conversion and intensification (2).
Despite increasing modification of its habitat, P. aristophontes still survives in good numbers on La Grille and Karthala (Grande Comore). However, the species is more seriously threatened by loss of habitat on Moheli and Anjouan (2). Throughout the Comoros the human population is growing rapidly, and it is inevitable that the threats to this and other endemic forest species will gradually increase. At the moment, there are no protected areas on the Comoro Islands and it is clearly necessary to designate representative reserves at the earliest opportunity. Already the forests of La Grille are seriously damaged, and suitable areas of undisturbed middle altitude forest is hard to find on Karthala (8). Nevertheless, some low altitude forest could be set aside for natural regeneration. As proposed in the review of Graphium levassori. all land over 1200m altitude on Karthala might be given protected status. This would inconvenience few people and would ensure the survival of many forest species (8). Conservation measures specifically for Papilio aristophontes should be incorpo- rated into efforts to conserve representative biotopes. Studies of its distribution and reproductive biology are needed.
- Carcasson, R.H. (1960). The swallowtail butterflies of East Africa (Lepidoptera, Papilionidae) . Journal of the East African Natural History Society Special Supplement 6: 33 pp. + 11 pl. (Reprinted by E.W. Classey, Faringdon, 1975).
- Collins, S. (1983). In litt., 12 July.
- D’Abrera, B. (1980). Butterflies of the Afrotropical Region. Lansdowne Editions, Melbourne. XX + 593 pp.
- Munroe, E. (1961). The classification of the Papilionidae (Lepidoptera). Canadian Entomologist Supplement 17: 1-51.
- Paulian, R. and Viette, P. (1968). Faune de Madagascar. XXVII Insectes Lepidopteres Papilionidae. O.R.S.T.O.M. and C.N.R.S., Paris. 97 pp., 19 pi. (2 col.), 34 figs.
- Turlin, B. (1983). In litt., 1 July.
- Turlin, B. (1983). In litt., 15 September.
- Viette, P. (1980). Mission lepidopterologique a la Grande Comore (Ocean Indien occidental). Bulletin de la Societe Entomologique de France 85: 226-235.
This page has been transcribed and edited, with permission, from Threatened Swallowtail Butterflies of the World: the IUCN Red Data Book by N.M. Collins & M.G. Morris. Whilst providing a sound baseline of information, it is in need of updating. The full volume, with references, may be downloaded from the IUCN Library System.