When you think ‘butterfly’, what is the first image that pops up in your head? A ditzy little monarch fluttering in your garden? The tiny white ones that may be moths, but they are so small it’s difficult to tell? Well thinking that a butterfly is a small thing that you can go see at those great science centers is slightly stereotypical. The Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing holds the title for the world’s biggest butterfly, displaying a wingspan of up to 11-12 inches. This insect has had an interesting journey from its discovery funded by bankers in the 1900s to being endangered now. Read on to get the full story of this queen.
Discovering The Blue Planet’s Biggest Butterfly
Ornithoptera alexandrae, or as it is more commonly known, the Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing, was discovered in 1906 by naturalist Albert Stewart Meek. Walter Rothschild, who was a British politician and banker, also had a passion for recreational zoology. To pursue this, he employed Meek to collect butterflies for him.
Meek spent nearly 20 years doing research in Papua New Guinea and the surrounding area. But he wasn’t really the most effective at his job. According to ati.com.
“Though the Brit considered himself superior to those who lived in the region, his collecting methodology was far from perfect. While the Indigenous people fashioned nets out of spiders’ webs and sticks to catch butterflies, Meek opted for a gun to immobilize his aerial targets.”
Meek did use a special ammunition that supposedly limited the damage caused to its target, but nevertheless, the results of his shooting are visible in the butterfly today, which is riddled with holes and tears.
|First Captured Birdwing|
But how did Albert Meek even find it? One fine day in 1906, he spotted a curiously large butterfly and (bam) blasted it out of the sky. This was the first ever collected Birdwing and is still on display at London’s Natural History Museum.
Almost a year later, Walter Rothschild prepared a scientific description of the flying insect that was named in honor of Britain’s queen, Alexandra of Denmark. Se was coronated in 1902, a year after Queen Victoria died.
Female: The female Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing is larger than its male counterpart and boasts rounder and broader wings. They are around 9.8 – 11 inches in wingspan and are about 3.1 inches in height. They have a body mass of around 12 grams, which is significantly greater than say a monarch butterfly, which has one of around 0.5 grams. The wing of a female is a shade of brown and has yellowish triangles on its submarginal line. It has two rows of white streaks and a cream body with red fur on its brown tinted thorax.
Male: The male has elegant wings that are much slimmer and angular compared to its complementary gender. They are a beautiful iridescent bluish green and have black central bands. The underside has pronounced black veins and a bright yellow abdomen. They only have wingspans of 6.3 – 8 inches, which is still huge.
“A spectacular form of the male is form atavus, which has gold spots on the hindwings.”
Note: This species shows sexual dichromatism, which is when ( the male specifically) shows exaggerated traits typically to appease possible mates. For example, a peacock and peahen show this, as the former boasts a grand plumage to court the latter.
The Queen’s Life….
A new fascinating study shows that females won’t accept males unless they flew and migrated over the forest’s trees that are known as Intsia bijuga, or “Kwila,” while they are in bloom. Till date no one knows why.
“Ultimately, females are capable of laying up to 240 eggs during their lifetime — while carrying only 15 to 30 mature eggs at any given time.”
As a whole, you can only find this species in the forests of New Guinea, specifically in the Popondetta Plain or remote Managalas Plateau towards the north. The first one found by Meek was captured at Biagi on the Mambaré River.
Current investigations are showing that this limited population is yet declining and fast. The Birdwing doesn’t have many natural predators, save spider webs, in it keeps getting trapped, and then eaten by actual birds and mammals. Its eggs are eaten by small insects like ants and the larvae by lizards, toads, cuckoos, and such.
“But sadly, what’s most concerning to the survival of this species isn’t anything that’s naturally found in the forest. Instead, it has everything to do with human encroachment.”
Even though it is universally acknowledged as one of the most stunning butterflies in the world, not much is known about them. Until 1968 when the Australian government took action, they were mere collector items for naturalists like Meek.
Before 1975, when Papua New Guinea gained its independence from Australia, there was the Fauna Protection Ordinance which made the collection of such animals illegal. In the 1970s scientists began mapping the butterflies distribution.
“When experts counted only 150 Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing specimens over a 10-day period in 1992, it became clear that they were observing a dwindling population. A few years later, those numbers dropped — as they did yet again in the mid-2000s. By 2008, only 21 adults were observed over a period of three months.”
Small birds and the orb-weaving spider are the only natural enemies of the Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing. Human deforestation and collectors are the major reason their small population is ever decreasing. There are 30 million species of insects in the world, and only 3 are endangered. Queen Alexandra's Birdwing is one of them.
Right now, forest loss due to humans chopping them down is one of the greatest threats to this species. And now thanks to the thriving palm oil industry in that region, the product is in high demand. Now this species is losing its already limited food supply and what's even worse is being sold for more.
“Back in the 1980s, they could sell for up to $3,000. Now, a pair can fetch up to $10,000.”
As far as anyone can tell, the incredible one of a kind species sure will be facing tough times.