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Richmond birdwing butterfly

Mating pair of Richmond birdwing butterflies (male at left)  Photo: Ian Gynther (EHP)

Mating pair of Richmond birdwing butterflies (male at left) Photo: Ian Gynther (EHP)

Common name: Richmond birdwing

Scientific name: Ornithoptera richmondia

Family: Papilionidae (swallowtails)

Conservation status: This species is listed as Vulnerable in Queensland (Queensland Nature Conservation Act 1992). It is ranked as a critical priority under the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection (EHP) Back on Track species prioritisation framework.

Description

Larva feeding on Pararistolochia vine  Photo: EHP

Larva feeding on Pararistolochia vine Photo: EHP

Richmond birdwing pupa  Photo: Harry Hines (EHP)

Richmond birdwing pupa Photo: Harry Hines (EHP)

The Richmond birdwing is one of Australia's largest butterflies with a wingspan of up to 16 cm in females and 13 cm in males.

Males and females differ in appearance. Females have dark brown or black wings with extensive white, cream or, in the hindwing, yellowish markings. The upper forewing of males is black with a distinctive iridescent green leading edge, while the upper hindwing is predominantly iridescent green with black spots. The underside of the male's forewing is black with extensive blue-green and yellow markings whereas the hindwing is largely blue-green and yellow with obvious black spots.

The mature larvae can grow up to 58 mm long and are variable in colour, ranging from black to pale grey-brown. Larvae have a series of prominent, fleshy spines running along their outer dorsal (back or upper) surface and a similar but shorter row of spines along the outer ventral (lower) surface. The bright green or bluish-green pupa is 40 mm long. It bears a lateral projection and two small dorsal projections on the thorax.

The larvae are cannibalistic and are solitary (usually only one larva is found on an individual food plant).

Eggs are roughly spherical, approximately 2 mm in diameter and bright yellow or brownish-yellow. They are laid on the undersides of soft leaves of the food plant.

Habitat and distribution

Flowers of the Richmond birdwing vine (Pararistolochia sp.)  Photo: Ian Gynther (EHP)

Flowers of the Richmond birdwing vine (Pararistolochia sp.) Photo: Ian Gynther (EHP)

The Richmond birdwing butterfly lives in subtropical rainforest where its larval host plants grow. Its distribution once extended from Grafton in New South Wales to Maryborough in southern Queensland. Today its distribution is fragmented, with the species occurring in two main areas: in the north from Cootharaba on the Sunshine Coast to near Caboolture and in the south, from Ormeau and Mount Tamborine on the Gold Coast to Wardell in north-east New South Wales. The Richmond birdwing occasionally occurs and breeds in the Brisbane area.

Life history

The larval food plant: Richmond birdwing vine (Pararistolochia sp)  Photo: Ian Gynther (EHP)

The larval food plant: Richmond birdwing vine (Pararistolochia sp) Photo: Ian Gynther (EHP)

The Richmond birdwing lays eggs singly or in small clusters (up to three) on native Pararistolochia vines (P. praevenosa at low to moderate altitudes and P. laheyana at high altitudes), on which the larvae are entirely dependent for food. The caterpillars only leave these plants to complete their development to pupal stage.

Pararistolochia praevenosa is listed as Near Threatened under the Nature Conservation Act 1992. Eggs are also laid on the introduced Dutchman's pipe Aristolochia elegans but the leaves are toxic and kill the larvae.

Threatening processes

Flower of the Dutchman's pipe vine  Photo: P. Forster, Qld Herbarium (Dept of Science, Information Technology, Innovation and the Arts)

Flower of the Dutchman's pipe vine Photo: P. Forster, Qld Herbarium (Dept of Science, Information Technology, Innovation and the Arts)

In 1870 the Richmond birdwing was reported as being abundant in the streets of Brisbane. Today, its rainforest habitat has been extensively cleared with less than one per cent of the original area still in existence. Permanent populations of the Richmond birdwing no longer exist in the Brisbane area. Similarly, habitat loss and fragmentation has caused the butterfly’s distribution to shrink back from its former northern and southern extents. As remnant colonies become isolated, the resulting inbreeding leads to a variety of negative effects, which may include reduced reproductive rate, the laying of sterile eggs, abnormal larval development, premature death, pupation failure, a reduction in size of adults and a loss of vigour, ultimately causing local extinction. The impacts of habitat loss, fragmentation and inbreeding are likely to be exacerbated by climate change.

The Richmond birdwing vine P. praevenosa is only patchily distributed and in low abundance. The introduced Dutchman's pipe is common in gardens and as a weed in bushland, creating host plant confusion for egg-laying adult females and a 'death trap' for any larvae that hatch out to feed on the plant.

Recovery actions

Captive-reared lavae for release to the wild  Photo: EHP

Captive-reared lavae for release to the wild Photo: EHP

In 2008, the then Environmental Protection Agency, now the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection (EHP) and the active community group, the Richmond Birdwing Conservation Network (RBCN), began a joint project to help conserve the species using a captive breeding and release strategy. Under the breeding program, Richmond birdwings from geographically separate sources have been mated with the aim of producing more genetically diverse offspring. These captive-reared progeny have been reintroduced at selected sites to restore wild populations. Following the first releases in 2010, evidence of natural breeding by the butterfly and more than a dozen flying adults have been seen in the Kin Kin and Cootharaba areas of the Sunshine Coast for the first time in almost two decades.

This reintroduction program complements other important components of RBCN’s enthusiastic efforts to conserve the Richmond birdwing, namely the reinstatement of corridors and stepping stones of the food plant P. praevenosa to link existing remnant habitat and isolated butterfly populations, the removal of Dutchman’s pipe vine, and mapping of the current distribution of the butterfly and its food plant.

Related information

Braby MF. 2000. Butterflies of Australia: Their Identification, Biology and Distribution. Volumes I and II. CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood.

Bradby MF. 2004. The complete field guide to the butterflies of Australia. CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood.

Orr A and Kitching R. 2010. The butterflies of Australia. Allen and Unwin, Crows Nest.

Richmond Birdwing Conservation Network. 2011. Wildlife Queensland, Brisbane.

Sands D. 2008. Conserving the Richmond Birdwing Butterfly over two decades: Where to next? Ecological Management & Restoration 9: 4-16.

Sands DPA and Scott SE. 1998. Conservation and Recovery of the Richmond Birdwing Butterfly, Ornithoptera richmondia and its Lowland Food Plant, Pararistolochia praevenosa. CSIRO Science Education Centre, Indooroopilly.

Sands D and Scott S. (eds). 2002. Conservation of Birdwing Butterflies. SciComEd Pty Ltd, Marsden and THECA, Chapel Hill.

Last updated
29 August 2012