“This magnificent specimen – an example of the world’s biggest and most beautiful butterfly – has resided in the museum since the early 1900s, but this is the first time it has been on show in an exhibition.
It’s an example of an iconic – but, unfortunately, also highly prized and highly endangered – species, one of just three insects to be listed by Cites [the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora], which makes international trade illegal.
The wingspan of the Queen Alexandra can reach up to 26cm and people who come to see it often measure it against their open hands.
The butterfly is dimorphic, in that the male – pictured here – is very different from the female. We display a pair next to each other and it’s noticeable that the male is bright and colourful with iridescent blues and greens like a peacock, while the female, which is the larger of the two, looks a little drab and sad by comparison.
Alongside the butterflies themselves, the display also features maps, documents and other information about the original discovery of the butterfly in its natural habitat, a coastal rainforest area of Papua New Guinea, where it is under threat as a result of the destruction of the forest to make way for oil palm plantations.
Tring houses one of the world’s oldest natural history collections and was founded by the second Baron Rothschild, who employed the explorer Albert Stewart Meek to search for new species in New Guinea (as the country was called at the time). The butterfly was discovered in 1906 and brought back to the family museum, which was left to the nation in 1937.
The butterfly continues to be an attractive creature for collectors, and black-market prices are now high, due to the international restrictions on trade. For that reason, we have increased our security for this exhibition.
Before it went on display, the pair of butterflies was photographed as part of the museum’s plans to digitise its collection of some 80 million objects.
We hope that the digitisation project will help to protect the collections for future generations and enable amateurs and scientists to study specimens such as the Queen Alexandra while discouraging people from taking them from the wild.
It’s also a way to prompt the indigenous people of Papua New Guinea to take pride in what they have, encouraging them to protect the rainforest because it is home to a world-famous species of butterfly.
Not all our examples of the Queen Alexandra birdwing are in such excellent condition, however. The butterflies are so large that early Victorian collectors used to shoot them with mustard seed or dust-shot cartridges that were originally designed to down small birds at short range without causing damage to plumage. As a result, our earliest example has massive holes in its wings.”
Interview by John Holt. The display at the Natural History Museum, Tring, runs until February 2020
Blanca Huertas is the senior curator of lepidoptera at the Natural History Museum