Elodina angulipennis (Southern Pearl-white) adult

Pearl Whites in the Royal Botanic Gardens

The Southern Pearl-white (Elodina angulipennis) is the only member of its genus which can be found reliably in Sydney, owing to the fact that it breeds in the Royal Botanic Gardens on Sydney Harbour. Its close relatives E. padusa (Narrow-winged Pearl-white) and E. parthia (Striated Pearl-white) do turn up around Sydney but don’t appear to breed here. This butterfly can be seen on the wing in the Gardens at all times of the year, including mid-winter, which I find a little odd given that Sydney is the extreme Southern end of its range.

I first read about the colony in the Gardens shortly after I began photographing butterflies, but in my first four years I never saw this species there despite many attempts to find it, even though I knew the precise spot where it was supposed to breed. In 2008 my brother and nephew came to stay; we went to the Gardens so my nephew could feed sunflower seeds to the cockatoos, and it was on that visit that I finally saw and photographed the Pearl Whites. Since then I have never failed to find the butterfly there, regardless of the time of year.

On 07/05/2019 I again went looking for the Pearl Whites, mainly because I wanted to see if I could capture them on video, but also to check whereabouts they were breeding and to see if I could photograph the lifecycle stages. It was a successful day as I took some rather shaky footage and managed to get  photos of ova, larvae, pupae and adult butterflies. There are not too many species where you can find all four lifecycle stages on the same day, but Elodina angulipennis is one. All the photos and videos in this blog post were all taken on 07/05/2019.

As far as I am aware the Pearl Whites now breed in two or three areas, as shown in the map below (look for the blue butterfly markers) :

The first location is, I believe, the site of the original breeding colony in the Gardens, based on two Capparis arborea trees in one of the beds close to the Maiden Theatre (the marker to the right on the map). There used to be a sign here to draw attention to the Pearl White colony, but it was removed a few years ago. Apparently the butterflies have been breeding here for over a century, and to me this is a good example of why any botanic garden is worth a visit; they contain plants not normally found in the area and so can harbour populations of interesting butterflies. 

The smaller of the two trees is right next to the path, and the butterflies do use it as females can be seen laying eggs on the leaves, and I have found ova, larvae and pupae there. However, the larger tree, which is set further back from the path, seems to attract more Pearl Whites; groups of them can often be seen chasing each other around the tree. The butterflies also like to bask on the leaves of other plants in the immediate area, such as native hibiscus. On this particular visit I saw at least two dozen Elodinas at this spot, along with a hungry Noisy Miner bird (Manorina melanocephala) who was endeavouring to eat them.

These Capparis trees are also a foodplant of the Caper White (Belenois java), a migratory species which occasionally appears in Sydney in huge numbers. Unlike the Elodinas, the Caper Whites can do severe damage to the trees; I’ve seen the smaller of these two Capparis stripped completely bare of leaves and covered with hungry caterpillars marching about in search of a feed.

Elodina angulipennis ovum (Southern Pearl-white)
Elodina angulipennis ovum
(Southern Pearl-white)
Elodina angulipennis ovum (Southern Pearl-white)
Elodina angulipennis ovum
(Southern Pearl-white)

The second location is the topmost of the two butterfly markers to the left of the map; it is right next to the path almost opposite the large topiary koala. There is a Capparis tree growing there and the Pearl Whites are definitely breeding on it; I saw plenty of signs of larval feeding, as well as finding all four lifecycle stages without any difficulty at all.

All the larvae I found were small, green in colour with some red-brown markings. I was trying to line up a shot of one when he literally fell off his leaf and landed on the ground below. He seemed unharmed, so I persuaded him to crawl onto another leaf so I could return him to the tree. Of course I placed him lower down on another plant first so I could take some video of him first 🙂

Elodina angulipennis larva (Southern Pearl-white)
Elodina angulipennis larva
(Southern Pearl-white)
Elodina angulipennis larva (Southern Pearl-white)
Elodina angulipennis larva
(Southern Pearl-white)

There were a lot of hatched pupae, which is not surprising given the number of butterflies I saw on the wing. The pupa in the photo on the left below appears to have been parasitised, as I think there’s an exit hole near the base of the wing on the side of the pupa. The photo on the right shows both a recently-hatched pupa and one that I suspect is due to hatch soon.

Elodina angulipennis pupa (Southern Pearl-white)
Elodina angulipennis pupa
(Southern Pearl-white)
Elodina angulipennis pupae (Southern Pearl-white)
Elodina angulipennis pupae
(Southern Pearl-white)

The third location is the lower of the two butterfly markers to the left of the map. I’m not sure if it’s really a separate site or whether the butterflies are breeding in that whole area between the topiary koala and the Calyx.

In this area lies a winding path through the the trees, a “Rainforest Walk” if I recall correctly, and towards the southern end (approaching the Calyx) the Pearl Whites are breeding on a few small Capparis scattered about. They can also be seen flying in the open space at the edge of the trees, right next to the Calyx.

Elodina angulipennis (Southern Pearl-white)
Elodina angulipennis adult
(Southern Pearl-white)
Elodina angulipennis (Southern Pearl-white) adult
Elodina angulipennis adult
(Southern Pearl-white)

As I mentioned earlier, I also took video of the Pearl Whites. This was the first time I’ve tried taking video with my DSLR and I found it difficult to keep the camera steady enough, as the Blair Witch shakycam footage shows. I do OK taking stills, where the exposure is only a tiny fraction of a second, but I discovered that taking video is a different thing entirely. Methinks I need to get a monopod!

Other species seen

I did see a few other beasties, though not a great deal as butterflies are much harder to find in the Royal Botanic Gardens than they used to be. The other species I saw were :

  • Leptotes plinius (Plumbago Blue). There were several males in the cottage garden around the Lion Gate Lodge, and I saw occasional specimens in other spots too, though no females at all. I took some video of two or three of these butterflies.
  • Prosotas felderi (Short-Tailed Line-blue). One female sitting in a spot where I couldn’t get close enough to photograph or video her.
  • Graphium macleayanum (Macleay’s Swallowtail). I saw one of these feeding from flowers, and I attempted to take some video. The result was less than impressive (see below), which is not surprising as these butterflies are complete and utter flibbertigibbets, if I may be pardoned for using that “f” word.
  • Papilio aegeus (Orchard Swallowtail). One very large female briefly showed interest in a couple of citrus bushes. I tried to video her, but even after all these years of using a camera I still sometimes forget to take the bloody lens cap off first!
  • Pieris rapae (Cabbage White). There were one or two of these around, but not many.
  • Delias nigrina (Common Jezebel). One male flashed around for about 30 seconds before disappearing into the treetops.
  • Junonia villida (Meadow Argus). I only saw one of these, but it very sportingly landed right next to me and basked in the sunshine while I took some video.
  • Toxidia peron (Dingy Grass-skipper). I saw one rather battered male enjoying the sunshine in the garden of the Lion Gate Lodge. I took a couple of clips of video, but the best of them would have been the one where I thought I’d pressed the “record” button but in fact I hadn’t.
  • Cephrenes augiades (Orange Palm Dart). I saw a few of these from afar, zipping around like mad things in the distance, but I only saw a couple close up. I took some video, but I think I need to get better footage at some point…
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4 thoughts on “Pearl Whites in the Royal Botanic Gardens”

  1. Great videos. Interesting how some want to be completely helpful, sit still, and even show how beautiful they are… and some want to play “hard to get”! lol Well done, really enjoyed it.

  2. Alan Hopkinson

    That’s a great spot for E.angulipennis, i used to go there quite often for lunch break when i worked at the Art Gallery just up the road.
    This time of the year while it’s cooler you can get close to them with the camera, not so easy in summer.

    1. Agreed! The warmer the weather the earlier you have to get there, as once they’ve absorbed enough warmth they tend to fly pretty much nonstop, unless they fancy stopping at some flowers for a feed. And even then they’re pretty frisky!

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