A Rare Beauty

From the Collections posts

The world’s largest butterfly is now also one of the most endangered, surviving only on a tiny plot of coastal rain forest in the Popendetta Valley of eastern Papua New Guinea. The spectacular Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing (Ornithoptera alexandrae) has been forced into an ever-smaller range by decades of deforestation and natural disaster.

Ornithoptera alexandrae ©AMNH/D.Finnin

Ornithoptera alexandrae

©AMNH/D.Finnin


This species, which feeds exclusively on the vines and foliage of local pipevine (Aristolochia) plants and thrives only in lowland old-growth rain forest, lost a large part of its habitat with the eruption of Mount Lamington in 1951. Habitat loss later escalated as forests were cleared for logging and farming— for rubber and cocoa plantations and, increasingly, for large-scale palm-oil operations. To add to the pressure, collectors continue to chip away at this fragile population by paying high prices for Queen Alexandra’s specimens on the black market, even though commercial trade in this species is illegal.

Queen Alexandra’s Birdwings have long been prized by collectors for their size, color, and distinctive shape. The female, a huge, mostly brown butterfly with yellow and white markings and broad wings, beats out all other butterflies with a wingspan of almost 10 inches and a body more than 3 inches long. The smaller male, shown above, has narrower, iridescent blue-green and black wings and a bright yellow abdomen.

The first European credited with discovering Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing was Albert Stewart Meek (1871–1943), an English naturalist and collector who obtained the first specimens in Papua New Guinea in 1906 while working for Lord Walter Rothschild. Improbably, Meek used a shotgun to bring down the high-flying butterfly. (Intact specimens were obtained later from eggs and pupae collected closer to the ground.) Rothschild, himself a zoologist and collector who amassed an enormous private collection, named the species in honor of Queen Alexandra of Denmark.

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A version of this article appears in the Fall 2014 issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine.