Story Behind the Science
Birdwing butterflies are considered the rarest group of butterflies in the world. Not to mention, this group also includes the largest butterflies, as well as some of the most beautiful. Queen Alexandra’s birdwings, the largest known butterfly (and insect) in the world, can grow to almost one foot – that’s larger than a lot of birds!
Birdwings are usually brightly colored, but it often depends on the butterfly’s sex. As a result of sexual dimorphism, birdwing females are about one-third larger than males of the same species. Their colors also vary, as males are usually the more vibrant. One possible explanation for the differences in wing color and pattern is finding and attracting a mate, though the butterflies’ wing colors may also help them to camouflage with their surroundings in the rainforest.
Because of their size, beauty and rarity, birdwings are quite a commodity to butterfly and insect collectors. Laws have been imposed forbidding the capture and trade of some birdwings like the Queen Alexandra’s birdwing, but these restrictions might be having an unintended negative effect on this specific population of butterflies; because these insects are off-limits, they’re more valuable and in higher demand for trade and collection. One butterfly trader was trying to sell a pair of illegally obtained Queen Alexandra’s for more than $8,500, and that’s only for two butterflies! Hundreds of these butterflies have been captured and illegally traded for comparable amounts of money.
In the 1950s, the volcanic eruption of Mount Lamington in Papua New Guinea destroyed a large portion of the rainforest that Queen Alexandra’s depended on, causing destruction and fragmentation to the butterfly's natural habitat. In more recent times, the rainforests have been exploited further for human settlement and subsistence farming. One of the greatest threats to rainforests in Papua New Guinea and elsewhere is the growth of palm oil plantations and the expansion of products like coffee, cocoa, rubber and other crops.
Did You Know?
- The term “birdwing” is derived from the Latin name “Ornithoptera” (one of the three genera that comprise this group of butterflies). Similarly to birds, birdwing butterflies are typically seen flying over the rainforest canopy rather than through it.Learn More »
- The illegal black market butterfly trade is estimated to be worth approximately $200 million per year.Learn More »
- The Queen Alexandra’s birdwing was discovered in 1906 when a man shot a female out of the sky. The man sent it to Lord Walter Rothschild, who named it after Queen Alexandra, the wife of King Edward VII.Learn More »
- After a Queen Alexandra’s birdwing hatches from its egg as a caterpillar, it takes about four months for it to become a full-grown adult butterfly. Adults can then live for about three months after emerging from the pupa.Learn More »
- Australia’s Richmond birdwing lays no more than three eggs at a time. When the caterpillars hatch, they fight to the death, leaving only a single surviving caterpillar.Learn More »
- The Rajah Brooke’s birdwing is the national butterfly of Malaysia.Learn More »
|Compare & Contrast||Birdwing Butterflies||Queen Alexandra's Birdwings|
|How many species?||Between 30 and 40||1|
|Where do they occur?||From Southeast Asia to Australia||A small area of approximately 100 square kilometers of a northern coastal rainforest in Papua New Guinea|
|What do they eat?||Birdwing larvae often have more specified diets of very specific plants, but as adults they feed on the flower nectar of many different native plants.||Caterpillars feast on the poisonous leaves of aristolochia, a tropical pipevine. As adult butterflies, they drink flower nectar, usually high in the rainforest canopy.|
|Do they have predators?||Birds, snakes, lizards, frogs, toads, spiders, wasps and flies||Humans are the sole predator of Queen Alexandra's birdwings. They lack other predators because of their poisonous, inedible nature.|
“Birdwing Butterflies in Malaysia”
Conservation Organizations for Birdwings, Butterflies & Rainforests
- Richmond Birdwing Conservation Network, Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland
- Butterfly Conservation: Saving Butterflies, Moths & Our Environment
- Butterfly Conservation, The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation
- The Lepidopterists’ Society
- Rainforest Alliance
- Forest Conservation, World Wildlife Fund