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How Big is a Queen Alexandra Butterfly

A Brief Guide to Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing: The Biggest Butterfly

Butterflies are beautiful and fragile and many species have spectacular wing colors and patterns. They have a fascinating life cycle from egg to caterpillar to pupae and finally a butterfly. There are over 17,000 identified butterfly species in the world and they are found on every continent except Antarctica. The variation in size and color are spectacular and the biggest butterfly is the Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing.

 

What Is a Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing Butterfly?

 

Queen Alexandra's Birdwing ButterflyThe Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing is recognized as the biggest butterfly in the world. But, you may be surprised to learn that this is a pretty new species and it was only discovered in 1906. The identification was made by Albert Steward Meek, a bird collector and naturalist during a visit to New Guinea.

 

Despite its size and vibrant color this species managed to evade classification for an impressive period of time. The males are smaller than the females and the IUCN has declared these butterflies to be endangered due to the loss of habitat caused by deforestation.

How the Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing was discovered

 

As we mentioned earlier, the Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing or Ornithoptera alexandrae was discovered in 1906 in New Guinea. The naturalist that made the discovery was not in that location accidentally.

 

Albert Steward Meek was in the employ of Walter Rothschild to find new butterfly species and write a book about his discoveries which was subsequently published as “A Naturalist in Cannibal Land” in 1913. Mr. Meek was engaged in research for 20 years in Papua New Guinea with a focus on butterflies.

 

Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing, the largest species.It’s not surprising that the biggest butterfly with vibrant colors, long wings and mesmerizing mating rituals caught Mr. Meek’s attention. In fact, his employer Walter Rothschild was also a recreational zoologist with a fascination for these butterflies.

 

Unfortunately, the collection methodology was not ideal for the region and Mr. Meeks used a gun loaded with specialized ammunition to kill butterflies for study. This inevitably made bullet holes in the body and wings which made a comprehensive study difficult.

 

If the naturalist had studied how the natives caught butterflies with nets made from spider webs, he would have succeeded sooner. This is easy to observe because an early attempt is on display in the Natural History Museum in London and the Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing specimen is full of tears and holes.

 

The Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing is named after Queen Alexandra of Denmark after her coronation in August 1902. This was an important time because Queen Victoria had died only a year earlier marking the end of the Victorian age and she was Queen Alexandra’s mother-in-law.

 

The timing of this event coincided with the preparation of a scientific description of the Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing by Walter Rothschild. When these events are put into perspective, the naming of this butterfly species makes sense.

 

How Big is a Queen Alexandra Butterfly?

 

The female is larger, the average wingspan is 200mm and it has an overall dark brown coloration. The largest Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing females are found on the Mangalas Plateau, a remote forested location in Papua New Guinea.

 

The female of the species has a dark brown forewing and small submarginal spots which reduce in size towards the apex. The hindwing is larger, it has a band of seven pale gray, yellow and wedge shaped patches that are separated with black bands at the veins. The inner cells have brown discal spots and the upper hindwing has powder yellow spots.

 

Male Birdwing ButterflyThe male is smaller with a wing span of 147-200mm with an overall black coloration with large iridescent blue and green patches. Both sexes have a black head and thorax with a bright yellow abdomen.

 

The upper forewing of the male is elongated, it has a radial green band and a blue-green band which become fused together at the ends.

 

The lower part of the forewing goes from blue-green to pure blue towards the rear with prominent black veins and streaks. The hindwing has a black sub-marginal cell, wing margin and background with a yellow underside.

 

What Are The Features Of A Queen Alexandra’s Butterfly?

 

Like many other butterfly species, the Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing has impressive wings. This is especially noticeable because the wings are so large and easy to observe. Female wings are slightly larger, they are primarily brown with chevron white marks on the forewings and centered triangles formed in lines that vary in color from yellow to white.

 

Males have iridescent blue-green colors on the primary and secondary wings with black bands. When both sexes have closed wings, there are visible and fainter versions of the dorsal markings with darker veins along their sides.

 

Where Are These Butterflies Found?

 

The Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing butterfly is endangered , which is especially worrying because its distribution is localized to the areas where its habitat is under threat. This butterfly can only be found in the low lying coastal rainforest in the North of Papua New Guinea and more specifically East of the Owen Stanley Mountains.

 

What Do They Eat?

 

The caterpillars eat pipevine and the adults drink nectar from hibiscus flowers that are large enough to support their large size.

 

Interesting Facts About the Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing:

 

  • The larger female has a 3” long body and a 10” wingspan.
  • The species is named for Queen Alexandra of Denmark.
  • These butterflies are strong fliers and they fly high into the rain-forest canopy.
  • This is the biggest butterfly species on the planet.
  • The larva is black, a cream spot is located in the middle of the body and it’s covered in red tubercles for movement.
  • The Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing belongs to the swallowtail butterfly family.
  • The adult butterfly will pump its wings after it emerges from the chrysalis to move fluid into the veins for flying.
  • This butterfly can weigh up to 12 grams.
  • It takes around a month for an adult to develop from the egg to an adult butterfly.

FAQ’s about the Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing

 

Why is the Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing butterfly endangered?

 

Where Are Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing Found

The primary cause is deforestation in the only area of Papua New Guinea where the Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing is found. This has caused a loss of habitat and a drop in population that has led to their inclusion on the endangered list.

Is the Queen Alexandra Birdwing butterfly poisonous?

 

The host plant that Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing caterpillars consume is toxic and this in turn makes them toxic and less palatable for predators. An animal that eats this caterpillar will become sick, vomiting is likely and yet they won’t die. So, many predators will see this brightly colored butterfly and the caterpillar markings and avoid them.

 

Conclusion

 

As you can see, the Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing is a fascinating butterfly and its size is only one of its interesting features. Sadly, this species is under threat and we hope that steps will be taken to preserve its habitat and ecosystem in the near future. Although we cannot observe this species outside Papua New Guinea there are plenty of sources in print and online if you want to engage in further study.

 

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