Earlier this year my colleague at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, David Goyder, tweeted a link to a new book about the biodiversity of Angola which you can download for free by following this link. David’s an authority on Apocynaceae, the family of plants on which I’ve also worked for many years (see this recent post), and has been sorking in Angola in recent years on a large biodiversity project. So I was interested to see what was in the chapter he had co-authored called “The flora of Angola: Collectors, Richness and Endemism“. I was immediately struck by one of the images in Figure 5.3 showing an unnamed butterfly feeding on the flower of a species of Apocynaceae (Raphionacme michelii).
I made a note to myself to talk to David about adding the record to our Pollinators of Apocynaceae Database. But before I had a chance to do that, another apocynologist colleague, Ulrich Meve in Bayreuth, forwarded the chapter with a similar idea in mind.
We emailed David about the image and he sent us originals, but confessed he didn’t know what the insect was. So I uploaded it to an African Lepidoptera forum on Facebook. At which point a wave of excitement broke, because after some discussion as to whether it might be a new species, it turned out that the most likely candidate was an exceptionally rare butterfly called Acraea mansya in the family Nymphalidae.
According to Dominique Bernaud, an authority on the group, this species is hardly known beyond a few collections and he has never seen a photograph of a living specimen: if you follow this link you will see that the known distribution of the species does not include Angola, and indeed it is not listed in the chapter on butterflies in the Angola biodiversity book. So this is a new country record and (we think) the first images of living insects: so a double first for a beautiful species.
An unanswered question, of course, is whether the butterfly is a pollinator of this species of plants. Raphionacme belongs to a subfamily of Apocynaceae that have hardly been studied from the perspective of pollination ecology, so we simply don’t know. Hopefully someone in the future will visit this remote region of Africa and find out!