Papua New Guinea (PNG) is home to the world’s largest butterfly – the “Ornithoptera alexandrae” or Queen Alexandra birdwing. Its wingspan can grow to 25cm. Queen Alexandra only breeds and lives in the Managalas Plateau in Eastern PNG or Oro Province. The butterfly numbers are unknown, and its habitat is increasingly disappearing. There are also concerns that the number of the large butterflies are depleting.
The Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing is on the red list of threatened species of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and its international trade is banned. From the perspective of species conservationists, the butterfly satisfies all of the criteria to make it a critically endangered species.
Walter Rothschild discovered the species in 1907 and named it after Alexandra of Denmark. The first European to discover the butterfly was one of Rothschild’s employee, Albert Stewart Meek during their expedition to Papua New Guinea.
Unusual Reproductive Biology
The threatened butterfly is vulnerable because of its unusual reproductive biology. The female lays its eggs exclusively on a poisonous vine called Aristolochia. Once the caterpillars have hatched, they ingest the plant’s toxic leaves, making them unpalatable for potential predators.
The Aristolochia winds its way up into the crowns of jungle trees, which can grow to heights of up to 40 meters (131 feet). The butterfly would be lost without the vine, so propagating the Aristolochia is one of the main goals of conservationists.