A small Ficus, one of a handful of trees permitted to grace the banks of a once estuarine harbour, grows near the polymarble statue of Raffles that stands with its back to the Singapore River, as if Sir Stamford had found grounds for second thoughts in the port that broke his bank and the city that honours his mercantile ardour but shares little of his sense of natural history. The tree, enclosed and embittered by a low ring of brick, offers a modicum of shade for pedestrians between Parliament and Empress Place, who must brave a promenade of bare tiles and bronze figures before they can find respite in the halls of the Civic District or cross Cavenagh Bridge to Fullerton Square and the financial capital of Southeast Asia.
Emerging via the service door of a fancy restaurant, kitchen hands smoke in the gap between the building and the boughs, against which one has braced his ride. The men in white pay no heed to neither passing tourists nor the passage of creatures that use the fig, with its dress of unruly trunks and serpentine curves, as bed, board and bounty. Jumping spiders in staid attire patrol this labyrinth of lichen and lignin, ducking into crevices when they catch sight of foul shadows. Small, long-legged flies also haunt the branches, and like the salticids, are duller versions of their kin who infest more natural reserves.
The uniformity was breached, however, by a number of fluffy moths that crept about the tree in a coat of striking colours. The head and thorax are deep red, as are the basal and costal portions of the forewings, which cover the red-tipped abdomen like a tent. The antennae, eyes, legs and distal sections of the forewing are black. The insects were reluctant to fly when poked; some simply dropped to the ground and fluttered weakly, while one raised its wings and extruded a drop of yellowish fluid. Not being infected by the sort of curiousity that draws a hail of bewilderment, the libation was not sampled. As it turned out, the liquid was probably a tincture of hydrogen cyanide, which these moths, identified by Dr Leong Tzi Ming as a species of Phauda, discharge should their dress code of warning be disregarded.
Phauda has no common name, but lepidopterans in the family it belongs to, Zygaenidae, are often called burnet moths, after a rosaceous herb with pink flowerheads in the genus Sanguisorba. These diurnal moths are smallish, though not microlepidopteran in size, with modest heads and palpi as well as pincushion-like cephalic organs called chaetosemata, whose function remains unknown. Adults avoid predators by advertising their unpleasant flavour and providing proof of this aposematism in cyanic compounds secreted from posterious glands, facial apertures or thoraic pouches, depending on the species. The caterpillars of two other local zygaenids in a different subfamily have been documented to feed on the Straits rhododendron, and are plump, setaceous things that defend themselves with cyanic excretions. The early instars of Phauda look more like birdshit, though. Adults may no longer feed, as their probosces are said to be obsolete, and probably rely solely on the reserves accumulated from larvahood to power their dispersal and the drive to find a match and make it lust.
These downtown redcoats closely resemble Phauda flammans, a moth widely distributed in the Oriental region whose young are recorded to feed on Ficus microcarpa and Ficus religiosa. Some have also observed a marked similarity between this group of zygaenids, unpalatable lycid beetles and Leptocoris (=Serinetha) augur, a soapberry bug in the hemipteran family Rhopalidae. The scentless seedbugs, despite their other common name, make poor eating as well, so the three unrelated taxa, which roughly overlap in range, probably form a Müllerian chain of mutually reinforcing signals that allow the insects to forage and fornicate in the open with few of the consequences associated with loud statements of fashion. In the lion city, where brazen declarations that threaten to tear the fabric of polite society are usually shouted down and shut well up, these moths occupy a precarious state, inviting as they do a not-unfounded fear of bold displays and unfettered lives. But as long as sprigs of Ficus stain the urban landscape, biding their time to chip away at the monuments and mementos of civil aspiration, there will be no escape from the creatures that have carved a niche in the arms of trees with the ability to weather metropolitan pressures and wear down the walls of structures that were never meant to last.