Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing: Essential Facts Uncovered

Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing is a fascinating butterfly species, known for its remarkable size and captivating colors.

As the largest butterfly in the world, the female can exhibit a wingspan of nearly ten inches, effortlessly grabbing the attention of enthusiasts and biologists alike.

These mesmerizing creatures display distinct sexual dimorphism, with males showcasing bluish-green wing flashes to attract their larger, more subdued-colored female counterparts.

Queen Alexandra's Birdwing
Source: Natural History Museum CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Though their extraordinary size and striking colors make the Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing a fascinating subject, it’s essential to also understand their vulnerable status and the importance of conservation efforts to protect this species.

Basic Information About Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing

Largest Butterfly in the World

Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing is the largest butterfly in the world. The female has a wingspan of nearly ten inches, making it larger than the male.

  • Females: Duller colors but larger size
  • Males: Smaller but with dazzling bluish-green wings

Scientific Name: Ornithoptera Alexandrae

The scientific name for this magnificent butterfly is Ornithoptera alexandrae.

It was named in 1907 for the Danish Queen Alexandra, giving it its iconic name. Both males and females display distinct color patterns:

FeatureMalesFemales
SizeSmallerLarger (up to 27.5 cm wingspan)
ColorBluish-green wingsBrown, yellow, tans, and beige

These butterflies are not only beautiful and large but also endangered. Conservation efforts help to preserve this fascinating species.

Discovery and History

Albert Stewart Meek, a British naturalist, discovered Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing in 1906. Meek, who was exploring Papua New Guinea at the time, collected the first specimens of this butterfly species.

The naming of this butterfly took place in 1907 by Walter Rothschild, who named it after Queen Alexandra of Denmark.

Source: Mark Pellegrini (Raul654)CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

Physical Characteristics

Sexual Dimorphism

  • Female Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing butterflies are generally larger
  • Males display more vibrant colors, with bluish-green flashes on their wings

Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing butterflies exhibit noticeable sexual dimorphism. Females are larger than males, but the males have dazzling colors.

Wingspan and Abdomen

SexWingspanAbdomen
Male6.7 to 7.4 inches (17-19 cm)Slightly smaller
FemaleUp to 9.8 inches (25 cm)Larger and rounder

Head

  • Eyes are larger in males
  • Males have more colorful scales on their head

The head of Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing exhibits differences between the sexes. Males have larger eyes and more colorful scales.

Thorax

  • Males have a narrower thorax
  • Females’ thorax provides support for their larger wings

The thorax of Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing butterflies also varies between the sexes. Males have a narrower thorax, while females have a more robust thorax to support their larger wings.

Proboscis

  • Used for feeding on nectar
  • Similar length in both males and females

The proboscis of both male and female Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing butterflies is used for feeding on nectar and is similar in length between the sexes.

Life Cycle and Behavior

Eggs

The life cycle of the Queen Alexandra’s birdwing begins with its eggs.

Females lay their eggs on the leaves of the host plant, typically the pipevine or birthwort species.

These eggs are around 4mm in diameter and creamy white in color.

Larvae and Pupa

Upon hatching, the larvae (caterpillars) feed on the toxic leaves of the host plant. This natural defense mechanism protects the larvae from predators.

As they grow, the larvae go through multiple stages called instars before entering the pupa (chrysalis) phase of their life cycle.

Adult Butterfly

Once the pupa stage is complete, the adult Queen Alexandra’s birdwing emerges.

These stunning butterflies have a wingspan of up to 11 inches, making them the world’s largest butterfly species.

The proboscis is a specialized feeding tube used to extract nectar from flowers.

Source: Natural History Museum CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Mating and Pheromones

Mating in Queen Alexandra’s birdwings is initiated by the release of pheromones from the female to attract potential mates.

This chemical signal ensures that males can locate the females for reproductive purposes.

Territorial Behavior and Diet

Queen Alexandra’s birdwings exhibit territorial behavior, with males defending their chosen areas.

They are substantial but not aggressive, and tend to chase other males away instead of fighting. Their diet consists of:

  • Nectar from flowers, which provides energy
  • Minerals from puddling, where they extract nutrients from damp soil

Habitat and Distribution

Papua New Guinea

Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing (Ornithoptera alexandrae) is native to Papua New Guinea, specifically found in the northeastern part of the country ¹.

This butterfly species is limited to a small distribution range in this region.

Rainforests

These massive butterflies inhabit tropical rainforests, where they seek out essential resources such as food, water, and nesting sites.

Human-caused development has led to fragmentation and degradation of their habitat, posing a significant threat to their survival ².

Canopy

  • The rainforest canopy characterizes the primary habitat of Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing.
  • They primarily reside in the upper layers of trees.

Being dwellers of the canopy, these butterflies have adapted to a life high above the ground.

Their bright colors and large wingspan provide them with benefits such as camouflage amid the foliage and efficient flight in the dense rainforest environment.

Conclusion

Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing is a captivating butterfly, renowned for its immense size and vibrant colors. Holding the title of the world’s largest butterfly, females can flaunt a wingspan nearing ten inches.

Exhibiting distinct sexual dimorphism, the males dazzle with their bluish-green wing flashes, contrasting the more muted hues of the females. Native to Papua New Guinea, they predominantly inhabit the rainforest canopies.

Their lifecycle, from eggs laid on pipevine leaves to the adult butterfly, is intriguing. However, it’s crucial to recognize their vulnerable status and the pressing need for conservation to safeguard this magnificent species.

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about these insects. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Letter 1 – Birdwing Caterpillar from Australia

Subject:  What is this
Geographic location of the bug:  Malanda Far North Queensland Australia
Date: 04/18/2018
Time: 04:25 AM EDT
Your letter to the bugman:  I am very interested to find out what caterpillar this is
How you want your letter signed:  From Austin

Birdwing Caterpillar

Dear Austin,
This stunning caterpillar is a Birdwing Caterpillar, but we cannot say for certain if it is a Cape York Birdwing, our first choice that is pictured on Butterfly House, or if it is the caterpillar of a Cairn’s Birdwing, also pictured on Butterfly House.

Letter 2 – Birdwings Mating in Butterfly Garden

butterfly lovin’
Hi Bug Man,
I sent you a query about tiny, tiny thorn-headed larvae the other day and have since been mesmerized by your site. The larva I had chosen for a photo shoot has since desiccated beyond recognition on a napkin (sorry, little guy), but I thought, in the meantime, I’d send a butterfly picture I took last winter, at a butterfly garden.

Is this cheating in the world of whatsthatbug.com?

Anyway, I remember they were in this position for a long time, at least ten minutes, and it looked painfully snug. But hope you like the photo. What kind of butterflies are they? And does the male or female have more color? Male, right? Yours
Allison

Hi Allison,
These are tropical butterflies, and we can’t give you a positive identification. They are either some tropical Swallowtail, or a close relative, one of the Birdwings. You are correct. The male is more colorful.

Letter 3 – Common Birdwing

Butterfly: Thai/Myanmar border
Not sure what this is. Photographed in a forest near the Thai/Myanmar border. Regards
Sean

Hi Sean,
The Common Birdwing, Troides helena, is found in much of Southeast Asia, including Thailand. It is the largest butterfly in India. We have located several online sites with information, including Wikipedia, but we really like this World of Birdwing Butterflies site with a page devoted to subspecies of the Common Birdwing.

Letter 4 – Golden Birdwing Butterfly from Butterfly Zoo

Subject: Butterflies
Location: Westford, MA
July 29, 2014 3:42 pm
Hello,
A friend of mine was at a butterfly zoo in Westford, MA and she came across several exotic species that she wanted identified
Signature: Collin

Birdwing Butterfly
Golden Birdwing Butterfly

Dear Collin,
Butterfly habitats are not natural settings for butterflies, and it can be difficult to identify unknown species without knowing the country of origin, which is one method we use to search for identifications. 

Additionally, the quality of your friend’s images is very poor, which is also detrimental for identification purposes.  We do know that one image is of a Birdwing Butterfly in the tribe Troidini.  It appears to be in the genus Troides. 

You can compare your image to this image of a female Troides rhadamantus from the Goliathus website.  As you can see from this FlickR image, the Golden Birdwing, which is the common name for Troides rhadamantus, is a resident in the Chicago Botanic Garden Butterfly House, which is a good indication it can be found in other butterfly habitats that often use the same breeders to obtain stock. 

Let your friend know that butterfly habitats often have displays with images that assist in identifying the residents.  The Westford Butterfly Place has a website with a gallery.

Letter 5 – Mating Common Birdwings and Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing from Singapore

Butterflies
Location: Singapore
December 4, 2010 8:18 am
I shot these at the Butterfly Conservatory in Singapore a couple of years ago. They are really stunning but I don’t know the species.
Can You ID them?
Thanks.
Signature: Tom Whitney

Mating Common Birdwings

Hi Tom,
Your mating butterflies are Common Birdwings,
Troides helena, which we identified on the Arkive Images of Life on Earth website where it is stated:  “The common birdwing is amongst the largest and most beautiful butterflies in Asia (3) (4).

The dramatic contrast of golden yellow hind-wings and glossy black forewings gives this species a striking appearance (3), and serves as a protection mechanism by warning potential predators that it is distasteful (2).

The upper surface of the golden hind-wings features black boarders and veins, with females additionally possessing a row of large, triangular black spots (4). A prominent pink saddle distinguishes the caterpillar of this species, and the pupa has a leafy appearance that helps to camouflage it from predators.” 

The Common Birdwing was the Butterfly of the Month in January 2010 on the Butterfies of Singapore website.  Your other butterfly is also a Birdwing, and it really resembles a male Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing, Ornithoptera alexandrae, which is found in New Guinea. 

The Butterfly Facts website has a photograph that looks very similar to your image, and you have to scroll down the page to find it.  Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing is thought to be the largest butterfly in the world, thought he females are larger than the males, and the Butterfly Corner website indicates that it is found in Singapore.

Authors

    by
  • Bugman

    Bugman aka Daniel Marlos has been identifying bugs since 1999. whatsthatbug.com is his passion project and it has helped millions of readers identify the bug that has been bugging them for over two decades. You can reach out to him through our Contact Page.

  • Piyushi Dhir

    Piyushi is a nature lover, blogger and traveler at heart. She lives in beautiful Canada with her family. Piyushi is an animal lover and loves to write about all creatures.

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