Animal of the Month
July 2016

Name: Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing (AKA dadakul in the Jimun language)
Scientific Name: Ornithoptera alexandrae
Classification:
Class: Insecta
Order: Lepidoptera
Family: Papilionidae
Genus: Ornithoptera


Number of Species: 1
Size: Male wingspan of 6.7-7.4 inches, female wingspan
11-12 inches.
Weight: N/A

Characteristics:

The caterpillar has a long body with tentacles coming out of the back. The butterflies have a head, thorax and abdomen, possessing six legs on the thorax and two antennae on the head. Females have broader wings, while the males have smaller, narrower wings.

Color(s): The caterpillars are black and their spines are red, with a pair if yellowish-white spines in the middle of the back. As adults, females have brown and yellow wings, while males have black, yellow and bright green wings. Both males and females have a red thorax and a yellow abdomen.
Behavior: Feeds and breeds exclusively on a single plant.
Preferred Habitat: Coastal, lowland rain forests
Range: Roughly 100 square kilometers or 62 square miles of northern Oro Province, Papua New Guinea
Diet: Both caterpillars and adult butterflies feed exclusively on the pipe vine Aristolochia schlechteri
Lifespan: N/A

Status: Endangered

Butterflies have added color and diversity to Earth’s landscape for millions of years, and they have enchanted humans for centuries. Butterflies come in literally all shapes and sizes, with dazzling varieties in color and dimorphism. But the largest butterfly alive today is only found in Oro Province, Papua New Guinea. In the local language of Jumin, this butterfly is called “dadakul”. In English, it is known as Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing. This butterfly was discovered by the naturalist Alfred S. Meek in 1907, who named the butterfly to honor Queen Alexandra of England.

Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing is as large as a small bird. The males can grow to be between 6.7 to 7.4 inches or so. The females are larger, reaching a wingspan of eleven or twelve full inches! If a birdwing landed on your hand, your had would be completely covered! Some scientists think they grow so large because they are poisonous to predators. Without predators limiting their numbers, they are able to live their full lifespan and grow to their magnificent size.

Alexandra Birdwings are intimately connected to the pipe vine Aristolochia schlechteri. Adult Alexandra Birdwings will lay eggs on this plant, which hatch after about fifteen days. The caterpillars are long and black with red tentacles and a yellowish-white spot in the middle of their backs. The caterpillars first eat the egg shells left over from their eggs, followed by pipe vine they were born on. Aristolochia schlechteri is poisonous to other animals. By eating these plants, the caterpillars make themselves poisonous, discouraging predators from preying on them. The adults drink the nectar of Aristolochia schlechteri flowers with their proboscis, their curly tube-like mouth. Truly, Alexandra Birdwings live and die by these poisonous pipe vines.

After molting six times, the caterpillars will wrap themselves in a chrysalis to undergo metamorphosis for 40-45 days. When they emerge from their chrysalis, Alexandra Birdwings become a prime example of sexual dimorphism, or the differences in appearances between genders. The males and females look so dramatically different that at first scientists thought they were two different butterflies! Males are smaller, yet brighter in color with shades of green, blue, yellow and black. Females are larger, yet have wings of brown, yellow, and white. Both males and females have a red thorax and a yellow abdomen.

Queen Alexandra’s Birdwings are endangered, restricted to only about 100 square kilometers (62 square miles) of lowland rainforest in Papua New Guinea. Their biggest threat is habitat destruction as their forest is increasingly cleared away for the cultivation of palm oil, coffee and cocoa. They only live in a few pockets of rainforest, all of which are surrounded by agricultural fields. The butterflies are also highly prized by collectors. To protect them, they were banned from trade by the Conservation on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES. However, the ban has done little good, as there is a vibrant black market trade for Alexandra Birdwings that generates 200 million dollars every year. In an ironic conservation effort, it has been suggested to downgrade their CITIES status to allow limited trade. It is believed that this will provide an outlet for collectors and thus discourage illegal trade. This is a good example of how conservation sometimes has to take unusual and uncertain routes in order to protect species. Perhaps allowing a regulated trade, along with habitat preservation, will help to protect the largest butterfly on Earth.

To learn more and help protect the Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing, check out these resources:

ARKive, Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing Page—ARKive is dedicated to protecting the Earth’s most threatened species through education, photos and videos. Here they provide information on Alexandra’s Birdwing as well as fantastic pictures and videos. They also outline the threats to the species and the projects underway to protect it.
http://www.arkive.org/queen-alexandras-birdwing/ornithoptera-alexandrae/

The Guardian—“World’s largest butterfly disappearing from Papua New Guinea rainforests”—an article from The Guardian explaining the plight of Alexandra Birdwings, and how allowing legal trade may ironically help them.
http://www.theguardian.com/environment/blog/2012/jul/30/queen-alexandras-birdwing-butterfly

 

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