I saw this strange & bizarre looking caterpillar on the leaves of Mussaenda frondosa in my garden. The caterpillar was dirty brown with a chestnut tinge and dark reddish brown splotches all over. The body also bore numerous processes which helped it to break up its outline. Just like Hans Christian Andersen’s classic The Ugly Duckling tale, I found out that this ugly caterpillar will transform into a beautiful Sahyadri Commander (Moduza procris undifragus) Butterfly.
The Commander (Moduza procris), is a medium-sized, strikingly colored brush-footed butterfly found in Asia. It is notable for the mode of concealment employed by its caterpillar and the cryptic camouflage of its pupa. In India we have 3 subspecies of this butterfly.
(1) Moduza procris procris Cramer, 1777 – Oriental Commander
(2) Moduza procris undifragus Fruhstorfer, 1906 – Sahyadri Commander
(3) Moduza procris anarta Moore, 1877 – Andaman Commander
The Commander has a wingspan of about 6 to 7.5 cm. The upper side of its wings are a bright reddish brown. Towards the center of the wing are broad white spots. In flight, one can see a bright red brown butterfly with a white band forming a V shape. There are also a few white spots scattered on the wings. Its hind wings have crenulated margins. The undersides of the wings are a whitish gray toward the base and have a row of dull reddish brown and a row of black spots along the margins.
Sri Lanka, Peninsular India, the Himalayas east of the Dun valley, through Kumaon, Nepal, Sikkim to Assam, Arunachal and onto Myanmar. Locally abundant, it is common from Sri Lanka to Maharashtra. It is rare in Gujarat and far more common in the Himalayas. The Commander is generally found in forested regions having moderate to heavy rainfall. It usually keeps to low elevations, that is, up to 3000 feet into the hills.
It is fond of open glades, roadsides and clearings in forests. It is abundant along water courses in dry and moist deciduous forests. It is also found close to villages or wherever it’s larval host-plant Mussaenda frondosa is to be found. It is most common in the post-monsoon months and winter.
The Commander can often be spotted basking with its wings pressed flat on exposed stones in stream beds. Individuals settle down on an exposed perch high up in the trees during the heat of the day. At this time it can be seen defending its territory and driving intruding butterflies away.
This butterfly has a swift flight with rapid wing beats and alternate spurts of smooth gliding. A powerful flier, it nevertheless flies for short distances at a time. Being wary, it maintains its distance and is best caught when engrossed in mud-puddling or feeding from flowers. It regularly visits flowers from low-lying herbs to high up in the trees. Though this is a mud-puddling species, adults do not visit carrion or old fruit to drink liquids.
The female Commander lays a single egg on the underside of the tip of a leaf of the food plant. The egg is hairy and greenish and looks like a green strawberry. The egg hatches in 3 to 4 days.
The caterpillar is dirty brown with a chestnut tinge and dark brown splotches all over. The body also bears numerous processes which help to break up its outline. The behavior of this caterpillar is very interesting in that it is one of the species of butterfly that makes long chains of frass. It eats up part of the leaf it is on and uses bits of leaves which are strung up with silk along with droppings. The caterpillar rests on the exposed mid rib of a leaf after removing the leafy portions on the sides. This behavior may be to dissuade ants from crossing over the chain of frass behind which the caterpillar rests.
Before pupating, the caterpillar wanders around, often far away from the plant it fed on. It pupates among dried leaves and twigs. The pupa is brownish in color and rough in texture. It is angular with prominent wing expansions and bears flat processes on the head which curl together making a hole between them. It also has numerous lines and markings that make it look like a rolled up dried leaf.
You can check out the life cycle of the wonderful butterfly at Saji, K. and H. Ogale. 2011. Moduza procris Cramer, 1777 – Commander. In K. Kunte, S. Kalesh & U. Kodandaramaiah (eds.). Butterflies of India, v. 1.04. Indian Foundation for Butterflies.