Are there butterflies in your stomach? Two new types join the Cockrell Butterfly center — one with clear wings

December 9, 2012

This fall, for the first time we have begun receiving a few Green Birdwing butterflies from one of our suppliers, and are they ever fantastic. The birdwings are very large, tailless swallowtails in the “poison feeder” group — the clan of swallowtails that feeds on poisonous Dutchman’s pipevine plants as caterpillars. Until recently, it wasn’t possible to display birdwings, because the entire group is listed as endangered and it is prohibited to collect them from the wild or sell them, dead or alive. However, a few people are now breeding them in captivity.

The Green Birdwing, Ornithoptera priamus priamus, is from Indonesia and New Guinea (all the birdwings are native to the Indonesian islands, and/or northern Australia). Like peacocks and cardinals among the birds, male Green Birdwings are much more spectacularly colored than the females. Females are larger, but are mostly black, with some white and yellow patches. Males, however, sport glowing, iridescent lines of green and black on their upper side and have similarly shining patches of yellow and green below. Their very heavy abdomens are bright yellow, while the thorax is velvety black with a vivid red patch near the head. Because their abdomen is so large, both males and females seem almost to struggle when flying or hovering at flowers as they feed.

Ornithoptera priamus

We are quite pleased at the relative longevity of these giants — typically swallowtails are rather short-lived, but some of our first batch of Green Birdwings survived for over a month. We also sometimes import another birdwing, Troides rhamadanthus, which is black with a brilliant yellow patch in the hindwing — not quite as spectacular, but still very showy.

The name “birdwing” comes from the size of these butterflies, whose females are the largest butterflies in the world. Alfred Russel Wallace, often cited as the co-discoverer of the theory of evolution by natural selection, was one of the first Europeans to capture and describe these creatures.  Here is his journal entry after first netting a male Ornithoptera croesus (now known as Wallace’s Golden Birdwing):

“The beauty and brilliance of this insect are indescribable, and none but a naturalist can understand the intense excitement I experienced when I at length captured it. On taking it out of my net and opening the glorious wings, my heart began to beat violently, the blood rushed to my head, and I felt much more like fainting than I have done when in apprehension of immediate death. I had a headache the rest of the day, so great was the excitement produced by what will appear to most people a very inadequate cause.”

We hope you will agree with Wallace that these wonderful butterflies are not “an inadequate cause” for excitement, but are a great reason to visit the Cockrell Butterfly Center!

Great Oro

Also new to the Cockrell are Glasswings, or Greta oto. These aptly named creatures are native to Panama to Mexico and even occur in south Texas. Their wings are clear except for the outer rim, hence the name “Glasswing.” Come check them both out in the Butterfly Center!

Authored By Nancy Greig

Dr. Nancy Greig is the founding director of the Cockrell Butterfly Center, which she oversaw from 1994 to 2016. As emeritus director she continues to work with the museum doing outreach and education. Her academic training is in botany and entomology, with a specialty in the interaction between insects, especially butterflies, and plants. In addition to cultivating backyard butterflies, she grows vegetables and bees

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