The Richmond birdwing butterfly (Ornithoptera richmondia) is the largest subtropical Australian butterfly. It was once abundant from Maryborough in southern Queensland to Grafton in northern NSW, breeding in rainforest habitat wherever the food plants were plentiful. Much of this land was eagerly sought after for grazing and subtropical agriculture due to its rich soils. In 1870 the butterfly was reported in newspapers as occurring in the thousands on the streets of Brisbane, but by 1926 natural history enthusiasts noticed a massive decline in the south, west and east of the city.
Since 1990 active conservation projects involving members of the community, particularly schoolchildren, were initiated to address the threatening processes that had led to the decline in numbers and distribution of the birdwing. The CSIRO Double Helix Science Club began major efforts, in collaboration with NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, supervising the cultivation of vines and experiments by students to restore fragmented populations of food plants.
The adult male birdwing has a wingspan of about 12-13cm and is basically black, with green stripes and spots on both sides of the wings, and patches of green on the hind wings.
The adult female is up to 14-16 cm, and black with white patches on both wings and a yellow band on the lower edge of the hind wings.
Both male and female have a distinctive red patch on the body beneath the base of the wings and a green stripe on top of the thorax.
The Richmond birdwing in its natural state breeds in moist subtropical rainforests wherever the two food plants occur. The butterfly will adapt to planted food plants in disturbed habitats such as gardens.
Habitats are nearly always on rich soils, such as those of volcanic origin (e.g. basalt-derived) or of alluvial origin (e.g. in riparian zones near watercourses).
Depending on food plant availability, habitats are distinctly lowland (to 600m altitude) near the coast or occasionally and seasonally at altitudes above 600m on the NSW/Qld border ranges.
Food and food plants
Adult butterflies will feed on nectar from flowers of many native plants, including native frangipani (Hymenosporum flavum), pavetta (Pavetta australiensis), black bean (Castanospermum australe) and lilly pillies (Syzygium species), as well as several exotic flowers, e.g. buddleia, pentas, honeysuckle, bougainvillea, impatiens and hibiscus. They prefer white and red blooms to other colours.
The caterpillars (or larvae) only feed naturally on two species of vines – the lowland Richmond birdwing vine (Pararistolochia praevenosa) and the mountain aristolochia (Pararistolochia laheyana).
These two plants have both been cultivated in order to assist in recovery of the breeding habitats for the butterfly.
Originally the Richmond birdwing was plentiful in the east coast subtropical areas from Maryborough, south-eastern Qld to Grafton in north-eastern NSW, but its breeding distribution is now restricted to fragmented patches from Kin Kin to the Glasshouse Mountains and west as far as Kenilworth on the Sunshine Coast, and from about Ormeau on the Gold Coast south to Wardell in NSW.
It once occurred on the Great Dividing Range near Toowoomba, but has only survived in these more western areas at Mallanganee in northern NSW.
Habitat losses from forestry, farming, residential clearing and burning and, more recently, mining are the principal threats to the Richmond Birdwing.
Currently, ongoing loss of riparian habitat and invasion by weeds, and mining of volcanic rocks for road base continue to threaten this butterfly.
The South American vine, Dutchman’s pipe (Aristolochia elegans), is toxic to the larvae of the Richmond birdwing and should not be cultivated in areas where the butterfly occurs.
In Queensland, the Richmond birdwing is listed as vulnerable, sharing the same conservation status (at least within the South East Queensland Bioregion) as the koala. Since 1900, community-based and research-guided projects have concentrated on cultivating and planting sufficient food plants to offset the losses incurred through habitat destruction.
In 2002, early signs of recovery in Queensland were seriously impacted by the drought, which affected the quality of food plants and prevented breeding and dispersal of butterflies. By 2010, wetter weather improved food plant quality and this, together with a massive effort to cultivate vines, led to a marked recovery of the butterfly in the southern Sunshine Coast and near the NSW border. These are the first confirmed signs of recovery for this butterfly following a 100-year period of population decline and range contraction.
In NSW, the Richmond birdwing is listed as ‘of concern’.
In 1989, the first practical steps to recover the Richmond Birdwing were taken by Bob Moffat, a NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service Ranger based at Alstonville. The program by CSIRO Double Helix Science Club and later the Richmond Birdwing Conservation Network (RBCN), now operating as one of Wildlife Queensland’s programs, continue to build on these initial recovery efforts.
|Larva of Richmond birdwing butterfly||Richmond birdwing larva preparing to pupate||Newly formed pupa of Richmond birdwing butterfly||Newly emerged female Richmond birdwing butterfly|
|Photos © Linda Hansbauer|
To get involved visit the RBCN website.
Publications, information and resources
- Pyper, W. (2001). Changing habitat. Ecos 106: 22-25
- Pyper, W. (2002). Butterfly effect: rethinking butterfly conservation. Wildlife Australia Magazine 39(4): 14-17.
- Sands, D. (1996). Birdwing blues. Wildlife Australia Magazine 33(1): 7-9.
- Sands, D.P.A. and Scott, S. (eds) (2002). Conservation of Birdwing Butterflies. SciComEd Pty Ltd, Marsden, Qld.
- Sands, D. (2008). Conserving the Richmond Birdwing Butterfly over two decades: Where to next? Ecological Management & Restoration 9(1): 4-16
- About the Richmond Birdwing Conservation Network
- About the Richmond Birdwing Butterfly