The Richmond Birdwing Butterfly

Identifying & Conserving this Vulnerable Butterfly

With an adult wingspan of up to 16cm the Richmond Birdwing Butterfly (Ornithoptera richmondia) is one of Australia’s largest butterflies. The females have a mix of dark brown or black, white, cream and yellow markings while the males have distinctive iridescent green or blue markings. Combined with their large size the males in particular are quite beautiful and striking. They are only found in the coastal and hinterland parts of South East Queensland and northern New South Wales. Due to threats from habitat destruction as well as introduction of an invasive weed species, they are now listed as a Vulnerable species in Queensland.

Male butterfly photo courtesy of Richard Bull.

Female butterfly photo courtesy of Elliot Bowerman.

Birdwing larva courtesy of Phil Moran.

According to the Department of Environment and Science, a Vulnerable species has:

 

  • a  population that is decreasing because of threatening processes, or
  • a population that is seriously depleted and its protection is not secured, or
  • a population that while abundant, is at risk because of threatening processes, or
  • a population that is low or localised or depends on limited habitat that is at risk because of threatening processes.

The Birdwing Butterfly Vine

The larva (caterpillar) has only two legitimate food sources, the Birdwing Butterfly Vine (Pararistolochia praevenosa) and Mountain Aristolochia (Pararistolochia laheyana) at higher altitudes. These vines emit pheromones to attract the butterfly.

Birdwing vines Paristolochia praevenosa courtesy of Jasmine Connors.

Paristolochia praevenosa leaves courtesy of Jasmine Connors.

Paristolochia praevenosa flower courtesy of Ian Gynther.

Paristolochia praevenosa seed capsule courtesy of Rosie Booth.

Birdwing Butterfly Vine (Paristolochia praevenosa) has been listed as Near Threatened in Queensland, which means that it has:

  • a population size or distribution that is small and may become smaller; or
  • a population size that has declined, or is likely to decline, at a rate higher than the usual rate for population changes for that species; or
  • the survival of the species in the wild is affected to an extent that the species is in danger of becoming vulnerable.

Near Threatened species are protected by law, and can only be collected or propagated with a permit. There is information about where to buy the vine on the Richmond Birdwing Conservation Network‘s website.

Additional suppliers include:

The Dutchman’s Pipe

Unfortunately an escaped garden vine, originally from South America, the Dutchman’s Pipe (Aristolochia elegans, also known as Aristolochia littoralis), emits an odour which also attracts the butterfly. The attraction to the Dutchman’s Pipe is so strong that even when a Birdwing Butterfly Vine is nearby the butterfly will still be more attracted to the Dutchman’s Pipe. Sadly, when eggs are laid and hatch on the Dutchman’s Pipe then the caterpillars are poisoned by eating the leaves. For this reason we at ECOllaboration have dubbed the Dutchman’s Pipe the “Pied Piper of the Richmond Birdwing Butterfly”.

The Dutchman’s Pipe is now a serious weed in natural environments and is classified as a Category 3 Invasive Plant in Queensland. This means that by law, it must not be distributed either by sale or gift, or released into the environment. Eradicating the vine through weeding is a way that we can help to keep it under control, but as it is poisonous gloves should be worn. It is a good idea to have the identification confirmed by someone experienced in plant identification until you are comfortable identifying it yourself, as there are native vines in the Aristolochia and Pararistolochia families which may be confused with the Dutchman’s Pipe.

Dutchman’s pipe Aristolochia elegans flower courtesy of Elliot Bowerman.

Dutchman’s pipe Aristolochia elegans leaf courtesy of Elliot Bowerman.

Dutchman’s pipe Aristolochia elegans seed pod courtesy of Forest & Kim Starr.

Dutchman’s pipe Aristolochia elegans seeds courtesy of Forest & Kim Starr.

Plant Identification

The Birdwing Butterfly Vine and the Dutchman’s Pipe might smell identical for a Richmond Birdwing Butterfly, but it is simple to tell them apart by their appearance. The easiest way to tell them apart is from their leaves. The Birdwing Butterfly Vine leaves are narrow with a sandpapery texture, while the Dutchman’s Pipe leaves are heart shaped and hairless. They also have quite distinctive seed pods. The Birdwing Butterfly Vine seed pods are oval and fleshy, needing to be cracked open before the seeds inside fall to the ground, where they are usually eaten and dispersed by Brush Turkeys. The Dutchman’s Pipe has long , segmented seed pods, which split open without help and the seeds are blown away by the wind.

The following table shows the visual features of the two species:

  Birdwing Butterfly Vine Dutchman’s Pipe
Vine Erect, 10-20 m Fast growing. Grows as a dense mat.
Stems Flattened, 1-2 cm diameter. Leaf stalk 1-3 cm long and hook shaped Woody, slender, tightly wound around
Bark Cork-like, raised, net-like pattern (like a giraffe) Cracked, corky or spongy brown, (when rubbed off smells like acetone)
Leaves Sandpapery texture, Alternate, Lanceolate shaped (narrow oval shaped to a tip each end) Alternate, hairless, Glossy green, broad and heart shaped, undersides paler bluish green.
Flowers 2.5 cm long, tubular (like a pitcher), pinkish with bright yellow on inside Tubular (like an actual Dutch Pipe), pale reddish-purple with white and yellow blotches
Flowering period September- November December- February
Seed pod Orange, oval shaped capsules with a fleshy centre. Seeds are beige,  heart shaped seeds, about 7mm. Approx 50 seeds per capsule. 6 mm, flat, segmented, papery capsule. Seeds are papery, tear shaped. Approx 350 seeds per capsule.
 

Species Recovery

Much has been done over the years to restore the Richmond Birdwing Butterfly’s habitat by removing the Dutchman’s Pipe and planting more of the Birdwing Butterfly Vines. The Richmond Birdwing Conservation Network has been the key group leading the conservation effort with projects including mass planting of the native vine, mapping the spread of the Dutchman’s Pipe, raising and releasing the butterfly into the wild, and modelling the impact of climate change on the butterfly. The network also records sightings of the butterfly, which assists with mapping out their current habitat. You can learn more about each project on their website. You can also learn more about how to identify the butterfly, the native host plants, and the Dutchman’s Pipe weed on their alternative website.

How can you help?

There are many things you can do to assist with the recovery of the Richmond Birdwing Butterfly:

 

  • Contribute as a Citizen Scientist by learning how to identify the Richmond Birdwing Butterfly, Birdwing Butterfly Vine, and Dutchman’s Pipe and reporting your sightings using the form below.
  • Join or donate to the Richmond Birdwing Conservation Network: wildlife.org.au/richmond-birdwing-conservation-network
  • Educate children about the Richmond Birdwing Butterfly: wildlife.org.au/shop/merchandise/birdwings-new-home
  • Remove the Dutchman’s Pipe weed from your property.
  • Find out if the Birdwing Butterfly Vine is suitable to plant on your property.
  • Shop at native plant nurseries, and plant local native species on your property. 
  • Dispose of your lawn and garden clippings appropriately by composting them, putting them in your Green Waste bin, putting them in your General Waste bin, or taking them directly to the tip.
  • Find and join your local bushcare group and participate in weeding and planting activities to protect your local waterway from invasive species. Most councils have a list of bushcare groups available on their website.

Report a butterfly or vine sighting!

Third party Reporting

This post was made possible by grant funding received from the Australian Government through the National Landcare Program.