Changing Habitat: The Revival of the Richmond Birdwing Butterfly Offers Hope That through Research, Education, Dedication and Teamwork, Local Communities Can Secure a Future for Threatened Species

By Pyper, Wendy | Ecos, January-March 2001 | Go to article overview

Changing Habitat: The Revival of the Richmond Birdwing Butterfly Offers Hope That through Research, Education, Dedication and Teamwork, Local Communities Can Secure a Future for Threatened Species


Pyper, Wendy, Ecos


It was a sultry January afternoon when our small group entered the rainforest. In the oppressive heat and the company of a million biting insects, we were soon sweating and swatting ineffectually. But the discomfort wore off when the reason for our expedition was sighted.

Fluttering just above our heads was a magnificent Richmond Birdwing butterfly, its large green and gold wings brilliant against the dark foliage. For our party leader and landowner, Arthur Powter, the sighting was further confirmation that his efforts to help save the butterfly from extinction had succeeded.

Unfortunately, the story of the Richmond birdwing butterfly is a familiar tale. The butterfly, Ornithoptera richmondia, was once common in sub-tropical rainforest areas: from Maryborough, in south-eastern Queensland, to Grafton in north-eastern New South Wales.

But the destruction of its habitat and principal food plant, the Richmond birdwing vine, (Pararistolochia praevenosa), led to the extinction of the butterfly from two-thirds of its original range and a decline in surviving populations.

This decline was exacerbated by the spread of an introduced vine called Dutchman's pipe (Aristolochia elegans), which attracts egg-laying by the female butterfly, but in toxic to the caterpillars when they feed.

For the past eight years, Arthur Powter and his wife Narelle have been turning their 12-hectare property near Queensland's Glasshouse Mountains into a Richmond birdwing sanctuary.

Their quest began when Powter was given three Richmond birdwing vines with a picture of the butterfly attached. He planted the vines and noticed what appeared to be other, much larger specimens on his property.

At about the same time, CSIRO entomologist and butterfly expert, Dr Don Sands, was part way through a campaign to restore the Richmond birdwing to its original range. As part of this campaign Sands had been propagating Richmond birdwing vines through Balunyah Nursery at Coraki in New South Wales -- the origin of Powter's three vines.

Sands was also giving talks to national parks authorities and community and school groups on the need to conserve the buttertfly's habitat and food plant. Powter met Sands at one such meeting and invited the entomologist to his property. To Sands's delight, he found the butterflies and a number of well-established vines on Powter's land.

Since then, the Powter's have planted more than 200 vines and have joined the Land for Wildlife Scheme. This scheme was net up to by the Natural Heritage Trust to conserve habitat of special significance on private land.

From little things ...

It seems Powter's enthusiasm is infectious. Five neighbours on adjoining properties have also joined Land for Wildlife and are planting and propagating Richmond birdwing vines on their land.

Graham Cheal and Pam Seddon have each planted hundreds of vines and collect seed for Powter to pot up at the local nursery. The seedlings are then distributed to groups, individuals and the local council, which bought land behind Powter specifically for the protection of the Richmond birdwing and its food plant.

`We gave away about 800 vines last year and hope to double that number this year,' Powter says.

As a result of this activity, about 247 hectares of birdwing habitat is now preserved and the butterflies are regularly sited on participating properties.

`Last November we had 14 butterflies -- 10 females and four males -- feeding on the flowers of the Bauhinia tree near the house,' Powter says.

The area has achieved national significance in terms of its conservation value for the butterfly and its food plant. But the story doesn't end there. Other Richmond birdwing conservation activities initiated by Sands and his CSIRO colleagues back in Brisbane, have also come to fruition.

These include school and community participation in vine plantings across southeast Queensland and northern NSW and monitoring the effects of climate on vine growth and leaf toughness. …

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Changing Habitat: The Revival of the Richmond Birdwing Butterfly Offers Hope That through Research, Education, Dedication and Teamwork, Local Communities Can Secure a Future for Threatened Species
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