The Queen Alexandra’s birdwing butterfly is the largest butterfly in the world. Still, the species is endangered, and so sought after by butterfly specimen collectors they have a special law to prevent their trade. This article will detail all you need to know about this incredible butterfly and why it grows so much larger than other types.
What’s the Largest Butterfly in the World?
Ornithoptera alexandrae is the scientific name for Queen Alexandra’s birdwing. It was named after the Danish queen consort of the British King in 190,6 and it’s a relatively new species. Many exotic butterflies were identified and classified in the 1800s, so when Albert Stewart Meeks spotted it in Papua New Guinea in 190,6 he didn’t hesitate to shoot it down as a prize specimen.
Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing: Species Overview
The largest butterfly in the world has some impressive statistics.
The average wingspan of a Queen Alexandra butterfly is 8 inches for a male and 9.8 inches for a female. Females weigh as much as 12 gEarth’shich sounds lightweigh, but is pretty heavy compared to the majority of Earth’s butterflies. For comparison, an adult monarch butterfly usually weighs half a gram!
Meeks shot specimen of 1906 is still on view in the National History Museum, London, UK. Its wingspan is over 7 inches acros, but peppered with gunshot. The largest Queen Alexandra’s birdwing ever caught had a wingspan of 10.7 inches. This unfortunate butterfly is also on display alongside Meek’s original.
Because their wings are so large, they are slow and erratic in flight, and they avoid thorny or scrubby areas that could tear their wings.
Queen Alexandra’s birdwing butterflies are beautiful.
Females have brown wings with white marks in chevron rows on their primary wings and centered white-yellow triangles on their secondary wings. Males have iridescent blue-green wings with a black center band. Both genders have black heads and bright yellow abdomens.
When closed, their wings are a faded version of their open colors. Their beautiful markings, coupled with their incredible size, create an awesome display when they fly through the rainforest canopy.
Queen Alexandra’s birdwings have a very small habitat.
They are endemic to lowland coastal rainforests in Papua New Guinea. The Oro Province has a population, but nearby populations are fragmented. These huge butterflies prefer the Popondetta Plains or the Managala Plateau regions in Northern Papua New Guinea, but overall, they are confined to a 40 square-mile section of coastal rainforest.
In 1951, a volcanic eruption of Mount Lamington decimated 250 square kilometers of their habitat, and experts think this has badly damaged their numbers.
Like all butterflies, Queen Alexandra’s birdwing has distinct life stages.
Female Queen Alexandra’s birdwings lay 15-30 eggs at one time, and over their lifetime as an adult (three months) lay 240 eggs. The eggs are 3.5 mm, which is large for a butterfly and in keeping with their eventual gigantic size. Eggs are light yellow with a flat base.
Females will only lay eggs on one specific plant. It’s the toxic pipevine plant Aristolochia schlecteri. The leaves of this plant are located high up in the forest canopy, often over 130 feet high (40 meters.)
When eggs hatch, the larvae eat their eggshells before moving onto pipevine plant foliage.
Queen Alexandra’s birdwing larvae are black with red tubercles and a cream saddle. They eat foliage and flower petals of the host plant even though it’s toxic. In fact, the larvae take on their toxins and become toxic to their predators!
After six weeks of eating, Queen Alexandra’s birdwing larvae create a thick skin and pupate. Cocoons are golden yellow with black marks. They remain in chrysalis form for a month before emerging. It’s possible to tell the gender of the pupae before it emerges because males have a charcoal patch.
In the chrysalis, they undergo several transformations, first reducing their larval bodies to a mush of DNA before transforming into the largest butterfly in the world! Amazing.
Queen Alexandra’s birdwing butterflies emerge from the chrysalis fully formed, but their wings are wet. They spread their wings to dry and pump them up and down to gain strength. At this stage, they are vulnerable to predators.
Adult Queen Alexandra’s birdwings usually live for three months. During this time, they drink flower nectar, mate, and lay eggs.
The world’s largest butterfly has few predators as an adult because they are large and intimidating. Birds catch them, and others become tangled in large orb weaver spider webs. Researchers have witnessed these magnificent butterflies chasing away birds. Males, especially, will try to clear an area of predators before mating.
Eggs and caterpillars are much more vulnerable to predators. Eggs are eaten by birds and ants, and caterpillars are a prime source of nutrition for lizards, birds, toads, and arboreal creatures like monkeys.
Are Queen Alexandra Birdwing Butterflies Endangered?
Queen Alexandra’s birdwings are classed as endangered by the IUCN. The main threat is habitat loss, and because their habitat is so small to start with, any loss is a big blow to their numbers.
The greatest danger is logging, land clearance, expanding palm oil industry, and rubber plantation growth. They are also a target for the black market. It is illegal to harvest Queen Alexandra’s birdwings, but they are illegally poached and sold for thousands of dollars to collectors.
What Is Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing So Large?
There’s very little information on this enigmatic butterfly. Despite its gigantic size, scientists have paid little attention to it. There are a few theories about why and how it’s such as a large butterfly:
Evolved to Feed From Large Flowers
Queen Alexandra’s birdwing butterflies drink nectar from rainforest plants. They especially enjoy hibiscus flowers, which are large and have long nectar channels. Queen Alexandra’s birdwing butterflies have a proboscis that’s long enough to reach into this large flower and drink its nectar. This has giEarthhem an evolutionary advantage over other butterflies that are too small to reach the nectar.
Large Means Safer
Queen Alexandra’s birdwings are the largest butterfly on Earth, and being large helps keep them safe from predators. Very few predators can manage to catch and hold an adult, and they are quite aggressive toward predators. If predators catch and eat smaller butterflies, it gives large species a better chance of survival.
Plus, Queen Alexandra’s birdwings’ small habitat is full of leafy rainforest plants with large leaves. Large wings blend into an environment of large leaves, camouflaging the butterfly and keeping it safe.
Another theory is that they are insects from before the Ice Age that wiped out most of the world’s megafauna.
Giant animals were common over 10,000 years ago. Scientists believe it was due to a more oxygen-rich atmosphere. When climate change occurred, it reduced habitats and food sources, so larger animals like saber tooth tigers and dire wolves couldn’t sustain themselves. Giant insects were common, too, and some folk think that Queen Alexandra’s birdwing may be a remnant of that time.
No research exists to prove or disEarth this theory!
Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing: Largest Butterfly in the World
We’ve learned that Queen Alexandra’s birdwing butterflies are the largest butterfly species on Earth, with a whopping 10-inch wingspan and hefty 12-gram weight. They are endangered and protected by law, but their 40 square mile habitat is under threat from human expansion.
It’s not known exactly why Queen Alexandra’s birdwings are so large. Still theories suggest it helps them reach rainforest flowers’ deep nectar channels, through to frighten off predators, camouflage at the top of the giant rainforest leafy canopy, or even that they are survivors from before the ice age.
Despite their 10-inch wingspan, the largest butterfly in the world is in danger. Their already tiny habitat is shrinking, and they are seriously under threat from forest clearance.
The Featured Image
Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.