Queen Alexandra's Birdwing is the biggest butterfly in the world, with a wingspan up to 1 ft (30 cm) wide. This rare, tropical butterfly is from a lowland coastal rainforest in New Guinea. This huge butterfly is on the US Endangered Species List. Its rainforest habitat is being reduced as oil palm plantations are created.
This enormous butterfly was named by Alfred S. Meek (in 1907) to honor Queen Alexandra (1844-1925), the Danish wife of King Edward VII of England (1841-1910).
The lifespan of Queen Alexandra's birdwing is approximately seven months. Females lay extremely large eggs, about 0.16 inches in diameter, on the leaves of the pipe vine Aristolochia schlecteri, which later serve as the exclusive food source for larvae. After about four months, the larvae metamorphose into adults, which may live for three months. Although this butterfly is a strong flier, it usually remains within a limited home range. Adults are rarely eaten by predators because they are poisonous; however, eggs are eaten by ants, and larvae are preyed upon by snakes, lizards, and toads, as well as by such birds as drongos, cuckoos, and crow pheasants.
This species has been recorded from a small area on the Popondetta Plain in Northern Province, Papua New Guinea, and is known as well from a few other sites in this country. The species is not as restricted as previously thought, though it is still very rare. Population figures are difficult to determine for this butterfly, because it flies high and is rarely seen. In addition, the leaves of A. schlecteri are frequently as high as 130 feet in the forest's canopy, making observation of larvae difficult, if not impossible.
Primary habitat is primary and secondary lowland rain forest at elevations up to 1,300 feet on the volcanic ash soils of the Popondetta Plain. In the second locality, habitat is secondary hill forest on clay soils at elevations of 1,800 to 2,600 feet. It has been reported that male butterflies swarm around Kwila trees, a large timber species, when they are in flower. Observers indicate that females will not accept males unless they have visited these flowers. If so, the Kwila's distribution may explain the butterfly's absence from areas where apparently suitable habitat exists.
The first specimen of Queen Alexandra's birdwing to be collected was a female found in 1906 on the upper reaches of the Mambare River, well outside its present range. Scientists believe that the species' distribution, already fragmented by agriculture and logging, was further disrupted by the eruption in 1951 of Mt. Lamington, which destroyed 100 sq mi of prime habitat.