Richmond
birdwing butterfly

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The Richmond birdwing butterfly (Ornithoptera richmondia) is the largest subtropical Australian butterfly, only in subtropical northern New South Wales and South East Queensland. Richmond birdwing butterfly populations have declined in Queensland since the 1920s following the loss and fragmentation of their habitats, mainly rainforests. The species is protected in Queensland, where it is classified as a threatened species at risk of extinction.

Quick facts

COMMON NAME:
Richmond birdwing butterfly

SCIENTIFIC NAME:
Ornithoptera richmondia

FAMILY:
Swallowtail Butterfly

QLD CONSERVATION STATUS:
Vulnerable

How we help the Richmond birdwing butterfly

The Richmond Birdwing Conservation Network (RBCN) is an affiliation of individuals, groups and organisations dedicated to the conservation of the Richmond birdwing butterfly (Ornithoptera richmondia) and its host plants, the birdwing butterfly vine (Pararistolochia praevenosa) and mountain aristolochia (P. laheyana). Head to the RBCN webpage to read about our work to recover the vulnerable Richmond birdwing butterfly and its essential lowland food plant across this butterfly’s natural ranges.

Richmond birdwing butterfly© Mark Gillow

Did you know?

The larvae or caterpillars develop through five stages (instars), moulting their skins between each stage. The mature (fifth instar) larvae can grow up to 58 mm long and are variable in colour, ranging from black to pale grey-brown.

larvae© Ross Coupland

Threats to the Richmond birdwing butterfly

    • Habitat losses from forestry, farming, residential clearing and burning and, more recently, mining are the principal threats to this species.
    • 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 butterfly and should not be cultivated in areas where the butterfly occurs.

 

Distribution

Fragmented populations of the once common Richmond birdwing butterfly survive wherever food plants for the larvae are growing.

Originally the Richmond birdwing butterfly was plentiful in the east coast subtropical areas from Maryborough, south-eastern Queensland to Grafton in north-eastern New South Wales, 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 New South Wales.

Description

  • 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 males and females have a distinctive red patch on the body beneath the base of the wings and a green stripe on top of the thorax.

Habitat

  • The Richmond birdwing butterfly 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 600 m altitude) near the coast or occasionally and seasonally at altitudes above 600 m on the New South Wales/Queensland border ranges.

Life history

The Richmond birdwing lays eggs singly or in small clusters (up to three) on native Pararistolochia vines — the birdwing butterfly vine P. praevenosa at low to moderate elevations, i.e. <600 m, and the mountain butterfly vine P. laheyana at higher elevations, i.e. above about 600 m). Larvae are entirely dependent upon one or other of these vines for food, only leaving the host plants to complete their development to pupal and then adult stages. 

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 the recovery of the breeding habitats for the butterfly.

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