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New Birdwings in Butterflies!

Ornithoptera priamus euphorion   Photo Credit: © J.D. Weintraub.

August 27, 2012

The Academy’s Butterflies! exhibit of live tropical butterflies and lush fresh plants is always a favorite destination for visitors of all ages. Now there is a new reason to visit.

In August, for our Bicentennial bug month celebration and beyond, Butterfly Keeper Mike Sikorski released into the warm, humid enclosure three different species of beautifully patterned birdwing butterflies from Australia and Southeast Asia. Birdwings are among the largest butterflies in the world, with females of some species reaching a wing-span of 11 inches. They are so named because of their large size equaling or exceeding that of many birds. Because of their size and often spectacular coloration, they are particularly popular with collectors.

Scientists don’t know for sure how many species of birdwings there are, but most estimates range between 30 and 40. The three species of birdwing now winging around Butterflies! are Ornithoptera priamus, Troides rhadamantus, and Troides helena.

Most tropical butterfly species don’t have common English names, only binomial (scientific) names used by entomologists to refer to particular species. A logical “translation” of the binomial name Ornithoptera priamus is “King Priam’s Birdwing,” a spectacular iridescent green species pictured here. This birdwing was named by the Swedish biologist Carl Linnaeus in honor of King Priam from Greek mythology. Priam was the king of Troy during the Trojan War.

Like the other butterflies in Butterflies!, our King Priam’s Birdwing butterflies were imported in the pupae stage from butterfly farmers who breed them. The King Priam’s Birdwing hails from northeastern Australia, the Moluccas Islands of eastern Indonesia, New Guinea, and the Bismark Archipelago.  Troides rhadamantus are native to the Philippines, and T. helena are from Malaysia.

Visitors can see the pupae hanging in the pupae chamber in Butterflies! as they go through metamorphosis to transform into the familiar flying jewels of nature. Watch out! They may land on your shoulder!