The Queen Alexandra birdwing is the largest butterfly in the world. With a wingspan reaching nearly 10 inches (25 cm) in the large females, this butterfly is larger than many birds!
Species Description and Range
The birdwing butterflies of Australasia are some of the largest and most beautiful butterflies. The sexes are differently colored, with males iridescent yellow, green, and/or blue on a black background, while the females are brown with lighter spots.
The spectacular Queen Alexandra birdwing butterfly has a very localized distribution in the lowland forests of northern Papua New Guinea. It is now very rare throughout its range.
From fossil records we know that butterflies and moths have been on the Earth a lot longer than humans. They are an important part of ecosystems on every continent except Antarctica. Butterfly eggs, caterpillars, and adults are important food for a wide variety of animals, including other insects, frogs, mammals, and birds.
Some butterflies are essential to plant survival as pollinators. Flitting from flower to flower to feed, butterflies carry pollen from one plant to another.
Most insects have extremely short lifespans. The life cycle of a butterfly consists of four different stages: egg, caterpillar, pupa, and adult. Butterfly caterpillars are highly efficient at feeding and growing.
As a prized food for many animals, some caterpillars have evolved elaborate means for survival, including camouflage coloration, mimicry, and sharp spines. Some tropical caterpillars feed on poisonous plants, absorbing the toxins to repel predators.
In the Queen Alexandra birdwing butterfly, it takes about four months from egg to the emergence of the adult butterfly. The adult usually lives another three months, flying high up in the rain forest canopy with one goal: to mate and lay eggs.
Scientists can only guess why many butterflies are so brightly colored. One theory is that, like some birds, color and pattern are used to attract a mate. It may also be a form of camouflage, particularly in the tropical rain forestst where intense colors do not stand out among dense pockets of shadow and bright patches of sunlight.
Causes of Endangerment
Butterflies are in peril worldwide.
In the United States, the Xerces Blue butterfly has vanished. In the British Isles, many species have become extinct, including the Large Copper butterfly.
Human degradation and destruction of butterfly habitat are primary causes. Even remote areas are impacted by overgrazing, roadbuilding, trampling, and elimination of forest for firewood and agriculture. Dependent on wild plants and natural habitat, butterflies are extremely sensitive to human-caused disturbances.
Most of the world's butterflies, and certainly its largest and most beautiful species, are found in tropical rain forests, which are disappearing at an alarming rate.
The Queen Alexandra birdwing butterfly is no exception. It is threatened by the clearing of forest for human settlement and subsistence farming, as well as the expanding commercial oil palm, rubber, and cocoa plantations. Additionally, many nontargeted insect species, including butterflies, are killed by the rampant use of agricultural pesticides.
The 1951 eruption of Mount Lamington destroyed a large amount of prime habitat, contributing to fragmentationof the butterfly's range. Despite this, in the 1970s and 1980s the Papua New Guinea government strongly promoted the felling of priceless sections of remaining forest for agriculture.
Because of its beauty and size, the Queen Alexandra birdwing butterfly brings a high price and is much sought after by collectors. The capture, mounting, and sale of butterflies is a booming industry.
In the United States and many other countries, protection of such "lower animals" as butterflies has taken a backseat to protection of charismatic species, such as grizzly bears. Because they are the most popular and recognizable of insects, butterflies may serve as the "flagship" species to highlight the need for protection of all invertebrates.
Although butterflies are protected under CITES, illegal trade to meet the demand of private collectors continues. Collectors in the United States and Europe are the largest market for butterfly specimens.
It is probable that many collectors are unaware of their hobby's devastating impact on butterfly populations. Education of collectors and better enforcement of the law are needed to curtail trade in wild-caught butterflies.
An extensive public-education effort in the British Isles sponsored by a conservation group is credited with saving some of the rarest butterflies from extinction by increasing public awareness and government funding for reserves.
In Papua New Guinea, the government has created a program for sustainable use to save the birdwing butterflies. When international trade in butterflies escalated in the 1960s, mainly to the benefit of foreign dealer, the government passed an ordinance protecting several species of butterflies.
At the same time, the government provided financial aid to help rural people set up butterfly farms to satisfy the world demand for pinned (collector) butterflies. Butterflies are a lightweight, high-value cash crop to these people, who might otherwise be cutting down the rainforest.
The rise in "eco-tourism" has made some countries eager to promote butterfly watching. This must be done carefully, however, since increasing tourist traffic can damage butterfly habitat.
At one winter roosting site in El Rosario, Mexico, as many as 50,000 visitors a year come to see the spectacle of "millions of Monarchs garlanding the trees like live confetti." Such great numbers of well-meaning butterfly watchers have nearly trampled some parts of the forest.
Questions for Thought
The Queen Alexandra birdwing butterfly is particularly beautiful and large. Many other, less spectacular-looking insects play key roles in ecosystems. What conservation actions can be taken to ensure survival of insects?
Activities: [CS1-1,CS-1-3, CS2-2,General]
Words in bold italics can be found in the glossary.