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Big boost to birdwing butterflies in the wild

May 25, 2020 6:45PM Quest Newspapers

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The Richmond birdwing butterfly. Picture: Frank McGrath media_cameraThe Richmond birdwing butterfly. Picture: Frank McGrath


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The threatened Richmond birdwing butterfly is making a comeback in the wild.

A successful captive breeding and release program could see it taken off Queensland’s threatened species list.

Since 2010, a program led by the Department of Environment and Science (DES) has resulted in more than 500 Richmond birdwing butterflies released into the wild.

“It is hoped these releases will boost wild populations of this exquisite* butterfly, so in the future it can be taken off Queensland’s threatened species list,” a DES spokesman said.

“The butterfly is currently listed as vulnerable* in Queensland due to habitat destruction and an introduced weed called the Dutchman’s pipe, which is poisonous to the butterfly.”

media_cameraA female Richmond birdwing butterfly. Picture: Marian Frew

The Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service selective breeding program is supported by water authority Seqwater and the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland (WPSQ), including its special interest group the Richmond Birdwing Conservation Network.

Seqwater, WPSQ and DES have provided 120 vines to David Fleay Wildlife Park on the Gold Coast, to help raise adult birdwing butterflies in a specially-refurbished* enclosure.

The vines are used for egg-laying by adult female butterflies and for feeding the hungry caterpillars until they reached the pupal* stage, usually between 25 and 50 days.

Once adults emerge, individuals from different geographic locations are selectively mated to achieve increased levels of genetic* diversity.

The next generation of caterpillars are then released into their natural habitat, where they become butterflies and eventually breed to improve numbers and genetic diversity of wild populations.

Richmond birdwing butterfly capture and release program

Seqwater Field Ranger Mitchell Thomas-Carr said the conservation program was successfully boosting numbers of the birdwing butterfly around Hinze Dam and Numinbah Valley in Queensland.

“Aside from our involvement in the restoration of the enclosure and supplying birdwing vines, Seqwater is planting host vines in birdwing habitat to further protect and conserve the butterflies,” Mr Thomas-Carr said.

“Seqwater is also removing the noxious* Dutchman’s pipe vine from our estate around Hinze Dam, which the butterflies mistake for the birdwing butterfly vine and is toxic* to caterpillars.

“And we’re providing eggs and young larvae* of birdwing butterflies found on Dutchman’s pipe leaves at Hinze Dam to DES for the captive breeding program.”

WPSQ Project Manager Matt Cecil said the captive breeding program was an important part of efforts to save this species from further population decline.

“Addressing the genetic decline within isolated Richmond birdwing butterfly populations is a key process in the recovery of this amazing butterfly,” Mr Cecil said.

“The Richmond Birdwing Conservation Network is identifying and mapping future corridors so the butterflies can be reintroduced to other areas.”

media_cameraLife cycle of Richmond birdwing butterfly. Picture: Sally Elmer

Scientific name: Ornithoptera richmondia.

Females have a wingspan of 16cm; males have a wingspan of 13cm.

Females have brown or black wings with extensive white, cream or yellowish markings.

Male wings have iridescent* green edges with extensive green or blue markings.

Eggs are about 2mm in diameter and are laid on the undersides of soft leaves.

The larvae are cannibalistic*.

The butterflies mostly live in subtropical rainforest in southeast Queensland and northeast. NSW, mostly feeding on birdwing butterfly vines.


  • exquisite: very beautiful
  • vulnerable: at risk
  • refurbished: renovated
  • pupal: the stage where an insect is larvae, a caterpillar or grub
  • genetic: to do with genes, which is how features are passed from one generation to the next
  • noxious: harmful or poisonous
  • toxic: poisonous
  • larvae: caterpillar or grub stage of an insect
  • iridescent: luminous colours that seem to change when looked at from different angles
  • cannibalistic: eat members of their own species


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  1. What year did the program start?
  2. Why are people helping butterflies breed?
  3. What plant do they eat and what plant is poisonous?
  4. Describe a Richmond birdwing butterfly.
  5. How big are the eggs and where on a plant would you find them?


1. Write a speech
After a successful breeding and release program, the Richmond birdwing butterflies are holding a ‘Gala’ night to celebrate their increased numbers. You, as a Richmond birdwing butterfly, have been selected to give a speech that outlines the breeding program and other work that was done to improve the species survival and thank those responsible for their hard work. Use information in the article to help you write your speech. In your speech include: why there was a problem, what has been done to help the butterfly populations, who undertook this work, and a warning to all butterflies about the poisonous Dutchman’s pipe weed.

Time: allow 40 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Science

2. Extension
The Dutchman’s pipe vine is an introduced species of plant that is similar in looks and smell to the native birdwing vine where Richmond birdwing butterflies lay their egg. The butterflies confuse the two plants and lay their eggs on the introduced weed. The Dutchman’s pipe is poisonous to the caterpillars that hatch from those eggs and therefore do not survive to reproduce.

Create a warning poster to encourage people to remove this weed from their property and to perhaps plant the birdwing vine instead. Include a picture and/or description of the Dutchman’s pipe vine so they know what it looks like and explain why it is a problem.

Time: allow 20 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Science

I Spy Nouns
Nouns are places, names (of people and objects), and time (months or days of the week).

How many nouns can you find in the article?

Can you sort them into places, names and time?

Pick 3 nouns and add an adjective (describing word) to the nouns.

HAVE YOUR SAY: What insect species would you like to try to save?
No one-word answers. Use full sentences to explain your thinking. No comments will be published until approved by editors.

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