The Natural History Museum digitises and displays the largest butterfly in the world

  |  Published: Feb 8th 2019
The female specimen of the Queen Alexandra Birdwing Butterfly (Ornithoptera alexandrae), the largest butterfly in the world © Trustees Natural History Museum 2019
The female specimen of the Queen Alexandra Birdwing Butterfly (Ornithoptera alexandrae), the largest butterfly in the world © Trustees Natural History Museum 2019

Friday 8 February 2019 marks the 151st anniversary of Lord Walter Rothschild’s birth. To celebrate, the Natural History Museum at Tring will showcase the largest butterfly in the world, the Queen Alexandra birdwing butterfly (QABB) in a new display.

A couple (male and female) will be exhibited alongside illustrations, original maps and letters detailing the discovery of this iconic species, which can reach a wingspan of over 28cm. The display highlights important conservation and research efforts taking place behind the scenes as scientists try to save this rare and protected species.

The correspondence on display between collector Albert Stewart Meek and naturalist Lord Rothschild, founder of the museum at Tring, will give visitors the chance to read the first accounts of when the Queen Alexandra Birdwing was found in the wild, and learn how the first ever specimens made their way to Tring from Papua New Guinea in 1907.

Not every specimen that the Museum received was in pristine condition, and the first ever collected specimen that arrived had bullet holes scattered across the wings. The QABB was so large that it was quite common for collectors in Victorian days to shoot them from the sky using  ‘mustard seed’ or ‘dust shot’ cartridges, designed for shooting small birds at short range without causing damage to the plumage. Meek subsequently collected larvae and pupae of the species and patiently bred specimens for the collections to ensure they were perfectly preserved.

Paul Kitching, Head of the Natural History Museum at Tring said: ‘These specimens are not only a beautiful sight, but also tell of the discovery of a species from a time when collectors were exploring new lands. Visitors will be able to read the first accounts of Albert S. Meek encountering this species and discover how our historical collections are still providing important scientific information relevant to modern research and conservation.’

Before the pair of butterflies went on display, they were photographed as part of the Museum’s ambitious project to digitise its Collection of 80 million items. Digitising this collection opens access for a global audience and protects the Collection for future generations, provides important geographical and historic data about the butterflies and critical information needed to assess the conservation status of these endangered species.

Dr Blanca Huertas, Senior Curator of Lepidoptera at the Natural History Museum said: ‘The exhibition of these specimens is a unique occasion for the public to see real specimens of this rare and threatened species, sadly very sought after by collectors. We hope that by digitising the Museum’s collection and making the images available on the Museum’s Data Portal, we will allow scientists and amateurs alike to engage in the study and conservation of butterflies at the edge of extinction.’

The display is now open and will run for twelve months at the Museum at Tring.

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