Remember Wallace for his birdwing but conserve this incredible insect too

By Dave Armstrong - 24 Nov 2014 19:59:0 GMT
Remember Wallace for his birdwing but conserve this incredible insect too

The male is smaller than the totally different female (typical of birdwings) but the spectacular orange, red and yellow and black (with the green iridescent underwing you can’t see here) certainly caught Wallace’s attention. It seemed to make him dizzier than the tropical diseases he contracted. birdwing image; Credit: Notafly/Wikimedia

How can we help conserve the rare and biodiverse habitats that disappear from the earth so rapidly? Studying the smaller organisms there might well help, because it encourages ecotourism (and it broadens the mind.) Our Insect Archives display many differing species, but my favourites, the birdwings, are so far missing. Here is my attempt to compensate! The classic disappearing species, Wallace’s birdwing, Ornthoptera croesus, is simply classed as endangered on the IUCN Red List and on Appendix II of CITES. Found only in the northern Mollucas (Maluku), part of the distant Indonesian islands, its relatives in Ornithoptera and Triodesare found within a wider part of Australasia and SE Asia. This being Indonesia, logging of that valuable hardwood has reduced its habitat to a meagre forest area. Malaria being one of the many diseases that Alfred Russell Wallace himself suffered, the forceful use of insecticides in the islands has also had severe effects of the biodiversity, including the butterflies.

In his book, The Malay Archipeligo from 1869, Wallace actually describes the insect feeding on yellow Mussaenda flowers on Bacan Island in 1859: “The beauty and brilliancy 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.” Few people will nowadays be able to experience this, but hopefully the common birdwings will do the trick- they do for me! Wallace’s Bacan subspecies that was recognised in 1980 would have been O. croesus sananaensis

Many of the Malaku Islands have their own subspecies of the birdwing, feeding on Parariistolochia plants, just like other species. The animal is unprotected specifically, but many organisations are trying to retain the flat marshy forest habitat. They need support but the lack of visitors to these remote places is a problem. Almost like the flora and fauna of the Pacific Islands, the 6 subspecies known of this birdwing make you realise how isolated each island is. The birdwing species are both highly protected and common as muck. It all depends on the animals’ adaptability and the degree of habitat loss. I hope everybody can try to see the biggest butterflies, how fast they fly, and how colourful they make our lives, and their own.