Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing Butterfly

The largest butterfly in the world is endangered. It’s called Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing Butterfly. This magnificent butterfly was discovered in the early 1900s by Alfred S. Meeks. Meeks named the butterfly to honor Queen Alexandra, the Danish wife of King Edward VII of England (1841-1910).

Photo Credit: Steve Parish (

This beautiful butterfly is sexually dimorphic, which means the male is prettier than the female. This is often the case in nature. In the below picture, the female is at the top… brown with spots. The male at the bottom is a bit more glorious.

It is endemic to a small lowland portion of the rainforest in Papua New Guinea. There are a number of so-called ‘birdwing’ butterflies, but the Queen Alexandra’s is the largest, having a wingspan of up to twelve inches.

Not only is the butterfly beautiful, but the caterpillar stage also dons beautiful red spikes on black with a central spike of yellow. The contrast is spectacular. Also, as is usual in nature, this bright coloring serves as a warning to potential predators–don’t eat me, or I’ll make you sick. 

So how does a butterfly become poisonous? Good question. Like many other poisonous creatures, the butterfly becomes toxic just by eating. In the case of Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing, their home is lethal. The female of the species lays its egg on the leaf of the pipevine plant, which leaves contain a toxin. The caterpillar hatches from the egg and immediately begins chomping on its home and as a result, becomes poisonous. As it grows, the caterpillar molts, eventually morphing into a pupa then into a butterfly, a toxic butterfly.

Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing is endangered (IUCN*) due to habitat destruction. It is now confined to approximately sixty-two square miles of coastal rainforest in Papua New Guinea. The habitat is being taken for palm oil plantations. It is illegal to trade this butterfly internationally.

Although this video won’t show you the scale of this Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing, it is nevertheless beautiful.

So lastly, I thought we might just mention the differences between butterflies and moths. It’s easy to tell them apart. Although both of these groups of insects are members of an order called Lepidoptera, they have significant differences.

A moth’s cocoon is spun silk. It’s a soft little bundle. A butterfly forms a chrysalis. It has a hard exterior. Both are the insect’s temporary home as the undergo a transformation from larvae to caterpillar. The butterfly’s antennae are thin with a thick tip. The moth’s antennae are feathery. Butterflies have colorful wings, and a those of the moth are less dramatic. Another interesting feature is the way they hold their wings. Butterflies tend to fold their wings straight up while moths hold them in a tent-like fashion.

There is always an exception to the rule, and it’s no wonder that the exception lives on the island of Madagascar—the Madagascan Sunset Moth. This moth his beautiful pigmentation. We have learned in past blog posts, and I have also mentioned it above, that sometimes a colorful creature comes with a warning. This particular insect is no different. It is poisonous. Oh, and one more thing about this exceptional moth. It’s diurnal, which means it’s active during the day, and that’s atypical moth behavior.

Photo credit:

Visit the following sites to learn more about Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing, and moths.

I hope you enjoyed this week’s post, and I hope that you will come back again next week for a look at another unusual creature.

IUCN = International Union for Conservation of Nature 


Jeanne E. Rogers, Author
The Sword of Demelza, The Gift of Sunderland, and
One Hot Mess, a Child’s Environmental Fable
Award Winning Middle-Grade Fantasy, Where Endangered Animal Heroes Roam the Pages!

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