The largest butterfly in the world

The Queen Alexandra's Birdwing butterfly lives in the lowland rain forests of northern of Papua New Guinea, with a wingspan of 30cm (1 foot) and an average of 3 inches in head and body length. It is believed to be the largest butterfly on Earth. Named by Alfred S. Meek (in 1907) to honour Queen Alexandra, the Danish wife of King Edward VII of England (1841-1910). Its scientific name is Troides alexandrae.

This huge and poisonous butterfly starts life as a rather large egg (in comparison to other butterflies), and hatches into a black and red caterpillar with a cream-coloured spot. As adults, their markings and colouration vary according to their sex. The brighter males have yellow, pale blue and pale green markings on a black background, while the females are distinguished by cream markings on a dark, chocolate-brown background. The abdomen of both sexes is bright yellow, and the lower wingbases are bright red.

The lifespan of Queen Alexandra's birdwing is about seven months. The females lay extremely large eggs, about 0.16 inches in diametre on the leaves of the pipe vine Aristolochia schlecteri, which later serves as a food source for the larvae. After about four months, the larvae metamorphose into adults, which may live for three months. This butterfly is a very strong flier, but will usually stay within a limited home range. The adults are very rarely eaten by predators, but the eggs are eaten by ants, and larvae preyed upon by snakes, lizards and toads.

The Queen Alexandra's birdwing is very rare, with population figures difficult to determine because it flies so high and is rarely seen. In addition, the leaves of A. schlecteri are as high as 130 feet in the forest's canopy, making observation of larvae difficult. The butterfly's primary habitat is rain forests at elevations of up to 1,300 feet on the volcanic ash soils of the Popondetta Plain. Studies have shown that the male butterflies swarm around Kwila trees, a large timber species, when they are in flower. Females will not accept males unless they have visited these flowers. If this is true, the Kwila's distribution may explain the butterfly's absence from areas where suitable habitat exists.

On September 21, 1989, the Queen Alexandra's birdwing butterfly was designated as Endangered. There is a large threat to this butterfly, already cocoa and rubber plantations have claimed large tracts of suitable habitat, and the area's expanding oil palm industry currently poses the most significant threat to the species. In addition, the species fetches a high price on the black market. There is legislation protecting Queen Alexandra's birdwind and other butterfly species. A Wildlife Management Area, of 27 000 acres of grassland and forest has been established by the Papua New Guinea government, and negotiations are in progress to establish more reserves and study areas, to see if A. schlecteri vines can be grown in an artificial habitat and whether or not the butterfly would eventually use them.

The main cause of the butterflies endangerment is humans destruction of the butterflies habitat. It is threatened by the clearing of forest for human settlement and farming, and the use of agricultural pesticides. Butterflies are very dependent on wild plants and their natural habitat and are extremely sensitive to human-caused disturbances.

The government has created a program for sustainable use to save the birdwing butterflies. When international trade in butterflies escalated in the 1960's, the government passed an ordinance protecting several species of butterflies, also providing financial aid to help rural people set up butterfly farms. Butterflies are a lightweight and high-value crop to these people, who might otherwise be cutting down the rainforest.


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