Top 10: World's largest butterflies

Published: 10th September, 2022 at 04:00
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You won't see any of these in UK gardens.

With around 17,500 species of butterflies in the world, these colourful critters are important pollinators that help maintain the ecosystem.

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They've adapted to live on every continent (except Antarctica) but generally prefer warm, open glades or woodland/forest. Butterflies are attracted to bright flowers and strong scents, and if you're looking to attract butterflies to your garden, our sister magazine, Gardeners' World, has put together this handy guide on how to make your garden butterfly friendly.

The UK has 59 species of butterfly, 57 of which are endemic, with the other two – the Painted Lady and the Clouded Yellow – being regular migrants. Unfortunately, you won't see any of the 10 largest species of butterfly here in the wild.

The largest species of butterfly we have in the UK is the rare swallowtail butterfly (papilio machaon britannicus), although it's currently restricted to the wetlands of the Norfolk Broads. This is thanks to its highly selective nature when it comes to egg-laying. Preferring to lay eggs only on milk parsley (peucedanum palustre) – the only food that Swallowtail caterpillars eat – much of the population has been in decline due to habitat loss, and the reduction in the land area where this moisture-loving milk parsley thrives. However, attempts are being made to re-establish the swallowtail butterfly elsewhere in the British countryside.

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10. Miranda Birdwing

Miranda Birdwing © Robert Nash/ Wikipedia

Wingspan: Up to 17cm

Distribution: Sumatra and Borneo

The first of several birdwing butterflies to make the top 10 largest, the Miranda Birdwing (troides miranda) primarily inhabits the tropical rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra.

= 8. Magellan Birdwing

Magellan Birdwing © Robert Nash/Wikipedia

Wingspan: Up to 18cm

Distribution: Philippines and Orchid Island, Taiwan

The Magellan Birdwing (troides magellanus) is a large, iridescent butterfly that has a blue-green sheen when seen from a different angle. This is thanks to its steeply set, multilayered rib-like scales that cause light to be diffracted.

= 8. Chimaera Birdwing

Chimaera Birdwing © Anaxibia/ Wikipedia

Wingspan: Up to 18cm

Distribution: New Guinea and Java, Indonesia

The Chimaera Birdwing (ornithoptera chimaera) is sexually dimorphic, with the female being brown in colour (the one pictured above is a male) and larger than the male. The Chimaera birdwing is a montane species (found on the slopes of mountains) and can be seen circling the tops of hibiscus and spathodea trees in the rainforests of New Guinea, Java and Indonesia.

= 6. Buru Opalescent Birdwing

Buru Opalescent Birdwing © Alamy

Wingspan: Up to 19cm

Distribution: Buru, Indonesia

As the name suggests, the Buru Opalescent Birdwing (troides prattorum) is endemic to Buru, in the forests on the Maluku Islands of Indonesia. The species is classed as vulnerable, partly as a result of the logging occurring in their natural habitat.

= 6. Palawan Birdwing

Palawan Birdwing © Mark Pellegrini/ Wikipedia

Wingspan: Up to 19cm

Distribution: Palawan, Philippines

Also known as the Triangle Birdwing, the Palawan Birdwing (trogonoptera trojana) is endemic to the province of Palawan in the Philippines. Pictured here is the male; the female is browner in colour.

= 4. Wallace’s Golden Birdwing

Wallace's Golden Birdwing © Notafly/ Wikipedia

Wingspan: Up to 20cm

Distribution: Maluku Islands, Indonesia

Wallace's Golden Birdwing (ornithoptera croesus) is found in northern Maluku in Indonesia, and was classified as near-threatened in 2018. It's a lowland species, preferring to inhabit swamps and other wet places.

= 4. Rippon’s Birdwing

Rippon's Birdwing © Robert Nash/ Wikipedia

Wingspan: Up to 20cm

Distribution: Moluccas and Sulawesi, Indonesia

First described in 1775 by entomologist Pieter Cramer, Rippon's Birdwing (troides hypolitus) is often likened to a wasp because of its yellow and black markings, this species of butterfly is endemic to the Moluccas and Sulawesi in Indonesia. Rippon's Birdwing is not significantly threatened, but it is protected.

3. Giant African Swallowtail

Giant African Swallowtail © Naturepix / Alamy Stock Photo

Wingspan: Up to 23cm

Distribution: West and Central Africa

The Giant African Swallowtail (papilio antimachus) can be seen flying above the rainforest canopy in western and central Africa, and on grassy hilltops during the breeding season. The Giant African Swallowtail is one of the most toxic species of butterfly, and has no known predators. If disturbed, it can spray a cloud of foul-smelling chemicals into the air. Although it was discovered in 1782, little is known about this species, and so far no one has been able to study the caterpillar or chrysalis stage; we don't even know what the caterpillar looks like.

2. Goliath Birdwing

Goliath Birdwing © Konrad Zelazowski / Alamy Stock Photo

Wingspan: Up to 28cm

Distribution: New Guinea, Indonesia

The second largest butterfly in the world is the Goliath Birdwing (ornithoptera goliath), which has a wingspan of up to 28cm. Like many butterfly species, the male is more colourful than the female, with the female Goliath Birdwing being browner in colour. As an aside, it may be that females have influenced butterfly colour diversity, by mating with the more colourful males.

1. Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing

Queen Alexandra's Birdwing © The Natural History Museum

Wingspan: Up to 31cm

Distribution: Papua New Guinea, Indonesia

The Queen Alexandra's Birdwing (ornithoptera alexandrae) is the largest butterfly species in the world, and is found in the forests of the Oro Province in eastern Papua New Guinea. The species is endangered, but you can catch your own Queen Alexandra Birdwing in Animal Crossing.

Discover more top 10s:

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Authors

Holly SpannerStaff Writer, BBC Science Focus

Holly is the staff writer at BBC Science Focus. Before joining the team she was a geoenvironmental consultant and holds an MSc in Geoscience from UCL.

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