IUCN Red List Conservation Status: Endangered
Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing (Ornithoptera alexandrae), is the world’s largest butterfly. This magnificent species, which can achieve a wingspan of 30cm, was discovered in Papua New Guinea by A.S.Meek, naturalist to Walter Rothschild, in 1906, and named in 1907 after the wife of Edward VII and mother of George V. Protected by law in Papua New Guinea since 1966, and under CITES Appendix I, the species is severely restricted in its distribution by the expanding oil palm and logging industries.
The dark brown females have a wingspan of 187-300 mm. The male is smaller (wingspan 147-200 mm) and is light blue, yellow, green and black (3, 4, 9, 12). The average head and body length is about 75 mm; the abdomen of both sexes is bright yellow and the ventral wing bases are bright red.
Male: upper forewing elongated, black with a long, broad, green radial band, a broad, blue-green anal band fused at both ends with a narrower cubital band to enclose a large, black sex brand. Upper hindwing elongated, black with a broad, blue-green submarginal band which is continued to the base along the costal and inner margins, and a broad, blue-green cell streak. Lower forewing blue-green with more blue towards the anal region; black veins, narrow margin and subapical streaks. LHW yellow becoming bluish towards the anal region, with black veins and narrow margins.
Female: forewing dark brown with relatively small, pale grey submarginal and discal spots which become smaller towards the apex. Hindwing elongated, with a band of seven pale grey, yellow-powdered, wedge- shaped patches separated by broad bands over the veins. All but the innermost contain brown discal spots, and all are more yellow on the upper hindwing.
Restricted to primary and advanced secondary lowland rain forest in or near the Popondetta Plain, a small area in the Northern Province of Papua New Guinea. The first specimen, a small, dull, atypical female, was collected in 1906 from the type locality high on the upper reaches of the Mambare River, well outside its present range (9, 13). To date, Ornithoptera alexandrae has only been recorded from nine 10 km grid squares on the Popondetta Plain in Northern Province, Papua New Guinea, and is known from only one other locality as a separate, high altitude population not far from the larger lowland population (18). It is reported that the 1951 eruption of Mt Lamington destroyed 250 sq. km of prime habitat, further fragmenting the already patchy distribution resulting from agriculture and logging (10).
For a map showing the area of distribution click here.
Habitat and Ecology
Ornithoptera alexandrae occurs with its larval food- plant, Aristolochia dielsiana (formerly known as Aristolochia schlechteri), in secondary and primary lowland rain forest up to 400 m altitude on the volcanic ash soils of the Popondetta Plain, and in secondary hill forest on clay soils from 550 m to 800 m altitude in its other locality (8, 16, 17). It is strictly monophagous, although this is due to the oviposition specificity of the female as the larvae can mature equally well (and apparently even better) on the softer-leaved Aristolochia tagala, a vine which is common and far more widespread throughout Papua New Guinea (21,22). The much commoner Papua New Guinea birdwing, Ornithoptera priamus, uses the same foodplant as O. alexandrae. Whether any competition occurs between the two species is uncertain. The duration of the early stages (from egg to adult emergence) exceeds four months and adults can live up to a further three months in the wild. Adults are subject to little predation but eggs are attacked by ants and heteropterous bugs. The larvae are preyed upon by toads, lizards and birds such as cuckoos, drongos and crow pheasants. Parasitism of larvae by unidentified tachinid flies, and of pupae by parasitic wasps, has been reported (21). Opinions vary as to whether parasitism occurs commonly or rarely (19, 21) and this is a topic which requires much more research. However, it is believed that the aposematic (warning) coloration of the larvae and adults is an indication that they can probably store the toxins that their foodplants are known to contain, using them for their own protection against more general predators (15). Adults are strong fliers but appear to remain in home ranges, ignoring other available habitat. It has been established recently that male butterflies often swarm around a large timber tree, Intsia bijuga (Leguminosae, known locally as Kwila), when it is in flower (10). Observations indicate that flying females will not accept males unless they have visited the flowers (10). Experimental confirmation of the behaviour pattern is needed, but the distribution of the tree may account for the absence of the butterfly from certain apparently suitable areas (10), although Intsia bijuga is a common and widely distributed species.
The eggs of O. alexandrae are extremely large (4 mm diameter) and it has been calculated that females, if their ovaries are continuously productive, have the potential to lay about 240 eggs during their lifetime (16). They possibly carry only 15-20 (maximum 30) at any one time (11).
Conventional mark-recapture methods cannot be used to estimate numbers of O. alexandrae as the species flies high and is too infrequently seen. Larval counts are also low (only one or two may be located during a day’s survey) and the leaves of the foodplant vine are often 40 m high in the upper canopy, effectively precluding observation of larvae.
The greatest current danger is the expanding oil palm industry in the Popondetta region, although cocoa and rubber plantations have also been a problem in the past. These have already claimed large tracts of forest known to have been habitat for Ornithoptera alexandrae (1). Exploitation of the reserves of wood in the Kumusi Timber Area may also be a challenge (update needed). Localized extinctions are occurring due to the clearing of forest to make food gardens. During the Second World War, Popondetta was an important air base, and at one time contained 26 airstrips (7). O. alexandrae is greatly prized by collectors and some illegal trade has undoubtedly occurred from time to time (see below). However, illegal collecting is not comparable with loss of habitat as a threat.
In 1966, the Fauna Protection Ordinance gave O. alexandrae and six other birdwings legal protection from collection (5). The law has been stringently enforced on several occasions, resulting in fines for nationals and deportation of expatriates. Surveys by the Division of Wildlife are establishing the presence or absence of O. alexandrae in defined areas. A large Wildlife Management Area(WMA), comprising approximately 11 000 ha of grassland and forest, has been established north of Popondetta. It is not clear how effective this WMA is in conserving wildlife in general, and O. alexandrae in particular. Reports suggest that the WMA has agriculture within its boundaries. Several thousand cuttings of A. dielsiana were prepared and an area of 4 ha of government owned primary forest at the Lejo Agricultural Station planted as a reserve and study area for O. alexandrae. The Wildlife Division has applied for a total of about 40 ha of government land rejected for use as oil palm plantations because of the deeply dissected topography. The aim is to create reserves for O. alexandrae on government land, which can be protected by law in perpetuity. A trial planting of A. dielsiana cuttings under tall, shady, mature (c. 14 years old) oil palms has been undertaken at the Popondetta Agricultural Training Institute to study the growth of the vines in this artificial habitat and to see whether O. alexandrae will eventually utilize them. Provincial wildlife officers regularly hold educational meetings with people in the Northern Province, to explain why the butterfly needs to be conserved. Representations for conservation of the species have been made to the Government of Papua New Guinea by several international bodies, including the lUCN/SSC Butterfly (formerly Lepidoptera) Specialist Group.
Negotiations to establish new WMAs have occurred between the Wildlife Division and interested landowners. Proposals for three reserve areas within the Kumusi Timber area were supported by the landowners and the timber company involved (Fletcher Forests, New Zealand). Implementation of the recent Conservation Areas Act (1978), which gives special protection to “sites and areas having particular biological, topographical, geographical, historic, scientific or social importance”, is being considered for certain sites.The Act also provides for the active management of such areas (2). It is hoped that portions of prime Ornithoptera alexandrae habitat will be considered for inclusion under this Act.
The discovery of Aristolochia dielsiana on Siassi I. (= Umboi I.) in Morobe Province has prompted the suggestion that an establishment of O. alexandrae should be made there (19). Although O. priamus occurs on Siassi I. (and feeds on A. dielsiana), Troides oblongomaculatus, a potential competitor, does not. The suggestion of an establishment here is an important contribution to the positive conservation of O.alexandrae, but of course, a thorough survey of the island and the occurrence of A. dielsiana on it is necessary before an establishment can be planned. O. alexandrae is the largest butterfly in the world and is aesthetically very attractive. The birdwings have long been held in high esteem by insect collectors and are in great demand worldwide. Species such as O. alexandrae, which are not only impressive but restricted in their range and hard to obtain, realise extremely high prices. Within the Division of Wildlife in Papua New Guinea, there is already a marketing agency which supplies insect dealers with the unprotected insects of the country (14). If the long term future of O. alexandrae is safeguarded, it could provide an extremely valuable income to the people of Papua New Guinea (6). Eventually the butterfly may become an added attraction to the growing tourist industry (20).
It should be possible to breed O. alexandrae in captivity so that its biology and the reasons for its monophagy can be more closely studied. However, extremely large flight cages are required if the species is to behave normally in captivity, and the cost is very high. Experiments to breed selectively for a culture of O. alexandrae which oviposits on Aristolochia tagala may prove rewarding (20). Despite its attractions, O. alexandrae is poorly known because it is so rare, and further research on its life history, behaviour, natural enemies and population dynamics should be undertaken at the same time that conservation measures are put into effect.
Ornithoptera alexandrae was originally included, together with all other birdwings, in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), but was subsequently raised to Appendix 1.
This page has been transcribed and edited, with permission, from Threatened Swallowtail Butterflies of the World: the IUCN Red Data Book by N.M. Collins & M.G. Morris. Whilst providing a sound baseline of information, it is in need of updating. The full volume, with references, may be downloaded from the IUCN Library System.
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