Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University


Check out these books by Tom Turpin:

Flies in the Face of Fashion, Mites Make Right, and Other Bugdacious Tales

What's Buggin' You Now?





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Bodacious butterflies named birdwings for good reason

Some of the brightest-colored butterflies in the world are known as the birdwings. Found in Southeast Asia, the birdwings get their name because they are large in size, have angular wings similar in shape to bird wings, and exhibit a bird-like flight. Butterfly collectors throughout the world prize birdwings because of their size and brilliant coloring.

Scientifically, birdwing butterflies are classified in the butterfly family Papilionidae. The Papilionidae are called swallowtails because most have a projection on the hind wing that resembles the tail of birds known as swallows. Swallows, by the way, feed on insects, and, according to some people, the name "swallow" describes their to-and-fro flying pattern as they gather their meals.

The Papilionidae include the giant swallowtail, which is the largest butterfly found in the Eastern United States, and the more common tiger swallowtail. Unlike their U.S. relatives, most birdwings do not have tail-like wing projections.

Today, birdwing butterflies are classified into 3 genera -- Ornithoptera, Trogonoptera and Trodies. The French Lepidopterist and physician Boisduval coined the genus name Ornithoptera in 1832. The word is based on the Latin words for bird and wing. Whether the generic name was created by Boisduval or based on a name used for the butterfly by native peoples is not known. One thing is for sure, the name stuck, and today these butterflies are known throughout the world as birdwings.

Another genus name Trogonoptera is based on the Greek word trogo -- to gnaw. This is in reference to the feeding habits of the birdwing caterpillars that literally gnaw on plant leaves as a food resource.

Because the birdwings are unmatched in size and color by European butterflies, the discovery of these insects created quite a stir among naturalists of the Victorian era. In those days, many species of living things from other parts of the earth were unknown in the old world. This was a time of descriptive biology, a time when newly discovered living things were given names using the two-name system developed by Linnaeus. So it was with the birdwing butterflies.

It was also fashionable at the time to name a new species after special people. That was the case with two of the more famous of the birdwing butterflies. The largest butterfly in the world is a birdwing named after the British Queen Alexandra, the wife of King Edward VII. Called Queen Alexandra's birdwing, this butterfly has a body about 3 inches long with an 11-inch wingspan. This butterfly is found in New Guinea and takes four months to develop as a caterpillar and will live about three months as an adult.

Like many of the birdwing butterflies, Queen Alexandra's birdwing is sexually dimorphic. In this case, the female is larger and less colorful than the male. The female is black and brown with white blotches. The male is green and black.

Queen Alexandra's birdwing was discovered in 1907 when Lord Walter Rothschild sent a collecting expedition to New Guinea. These butterflies fly in the canopy of rain forests so are somewhat difficult to collect. In this case, the first specimen was brought down with a shot from a small shotgun. One is to presume that the specimen was not in great shape when collected! Better specimens were reared from caterpillars, and it is from these that Lord Rothschild wrote the description for the species and named it after the Queen of England at the time. The scientific name of the insect is Ornithoptera alexandrae.

Another well-known birdwing is Trogonoptera brookiana. The naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace collected this species in 1855 in Borneo. He named it after Sir James Brook, who as the Rajah suppressed head hunting among the native peoples. Whether Rajah Brooks was impressed with the singular honor or not remains one of little secrets of history. However Wallace himself was impressed with this birdwing. He is reported to have said, "On taking it out of my net my heart began to beat violently…" That is indeed a bodacious birdwing!



Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox