Shimmering Beauties: The World’s Rarest Butterflies

Indonesia and Papua New Guinea are home to some of the most beautiful and rarest butterflies on earth. Among these are the swallowtails, a broad category that includes birdwing butterflies, members of the butterfly family Papilionidae. Some species are so rare that they have not been seen for nearly a century. All are endangered by human encroachment or hunted by butterfly collectors and dealers. Here’s a look at these stunning beauties before they are gone for good.

The Green Swallowtail

The Green Swallowtail butterfly is found only on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi and only at a certain altitude. Known by its scientific name, Papilio blumei, this butterfly with a 14 cm (5.5 in) wingspan is a sight to behold. It has wings like black velvet, speckled and striped with green and a bright turquoise-blue which extends down to its teardrop-shaped tails. The coloration is somewhat variable and reflects different colors at different viewing angles. Its beauty and rarity make the Green Swallowtail a coveted species among well-heeled collectors. Unfortunatly, it is also the reason they are actively hunted and highly endangered.

Queen Alexander Birdwing

Queen Alexander’s Birdwing. Female (top) and male (bottom). Not to scale.

The Queen Alexander Birdwing is the largest butterfly on earth, with wing spans of up to 30 cm, or ten times the size of common butterflies. It is also drop-dead gorgeous, and thus a collectors’ favourite. In the Northern Province of Papua New Guinea (PNG) where it lives, the density of Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing has shrunk to only 10 per square km.

Papilio Moerneri

Papilio Moerneri has no common name. Native to Papua New Guinea, it is the least known of all swallowtails. This elusive butterfly has not been seen since 1924.

The Southern tailed Birdwing

The Southern tailed Birdwing (Ornithoptera meridionalis) is a highly endangered species. Habitat alterations due to volcanic eruption in the 1950s and habitat destruction for oil palm plantations are key reasons why they are pushed to the brink of extinction. Males are remarkable in that they have an extremely small wing area relative to its rather bulky body. In particular, the hindwings are very reduced and tetragonal in shape, tapering elegantly into a pair of filamentous tails that are easily broken.

Wallace Golden Birdwing

Wallace’s Golden Birdwing (Ornithoptera croesus) was first collected by the famed British naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace in Bacan Island, Indonesia and named by him in 1859. These are the words of Wallace following his capture of this species described in his book The Malay Archipelago:

The beauty and brilliancy of this insect are indescribable, and none but a naturalist can understand the intense excitement I experienced when I at length captured it. On taking it out of my net and opening the glorious wings, my heart began to beat violently, the blood rushed to my head, and I felt much more like fainting than I have done when in apprehension of immediate death. I had a headache the rest of the day, so great was the excitement produced by what will appear to most people a very inadequate cause.

The shimmering beauty of Wallace’s Golden Birdwing in the wild.

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