Kamehameha butterflies

February 27th, 2014
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The Kamehameha butterfly (Vanessa tameamea) is endemic to Hawaii, meaning it is found nowhere else in the world. It is also Hawaii's official state insect. Photo courtesy UH.

The Kamehameha butterfly (Vanessa tameamea) is endemic to Hawaii, meaning it is found nowhere else in the world. It is also Hawaii's official state insect. The University of Hawaii is asking for the public's help in mapping these butterflies in Hawaii. Photo courtesy UH.

The Pulelehua Project is now underway, with at least 10 new confirmed sightings of Kamehameha butterflies by citizen scientists from the islands of Molokai, Oahu, Kauai and the Big Island.

Researchers at the University of Hawaii's College of Tropical Agriculture reached out to the public last week, asking for photo submissions to help map out the distribution of the butterflies to help determine how and why its population has declined.

The Kamehameha butterfly (Vanessa tameamea) is endemic to Hawaii, meaning it is found nowhere else in the world. They used to be commonly found up at Tantalus on Oahu, but no longer are. They are orange and black, but don't get them confused with common lookalikes.

Check out the number of white or light orange patches on the black area on the upper surface of the forewings — the Kamehameha has only three main white patches in this area (other species have additional white spots). When at rest, with wings folded, the Kamehameha also has a longer, pale patch or multiple pale patches on the underside of the hindwing. It has no blue-centered eyespots.

Many submissions have been of the Gulf Fritillary, according to the Pulelehua Project, which is pretty common around Honolulu. The caterpillars are red with black spines, and they feed on lilikoi and related vines.

The non-native painted lady butterflies (Vanessa cardui and Vanessa virginiensis) are in the same genus as the Kamehameha butterfly and look very similar — check for "extra" white dots in the black area on the front wings.

To submit a sighting, the university requests that you include a photo, which can be uploaded on its website. If you think you've seen one but can't submit a photo, email pulelehua@ctahr.hawaii.edu with a description of the sighting, location ad date.

You can also spot the eggs, which are tiny and about the size of a pin head on the upper or lower surface of the leaves of caterpillar host plants, particularly the mamaki.

The eggs are just the size of a pin head. Photo by Will Haines. Courtesy UH.

The eggs are just the size of a pin head. Photo by Will Haines. Courtesy UH.

It's definitely an interesting approach — inviting "Hawaii citizen scientists" to get involved.

For updates, go to the Pulelehua Project's FB page (to see photos submitted by citizen scientists). The first confirmed sighting of a Kamehameha butterfly on Molokai came from Waialua Valley yesterday. Another was sighted in a backyard in Volcano on the Big Island, located at 4,000 feet elevation, where the butterflies appear to be doing well.

Kamehameha butterfly egg, closeup. The egg measures only 1 millimeter in diameter. Photo by Will Haines.

Kamehameha butterfly egg, closeup. The egg measures only 1 millimeter in diameter. Photo by Will Haines.

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