It is 1906, and Albert Stewart Meek, an English bird and insect collector hired by Walter Rothschild, is in the jungles of Papua New Guinea looking for specimens. With the help of natives, they search for specimens using nets made by forked sticks and spun spiderwebs from the jungle. Looking up, he spots a large butterfly. The flying insect out of reach, Meek raises a small shotgun, takes aim, and fires, successfully taking down the specimen. Exported to London with other specimens he had collected for Rothschild’s natural history collection, it was soon discovered this was the largest butterfly on Earth. In 1907 with the specimen now in London, Rothschild would name it in honor of Alexandra of Denmark, the wife of King Edward VII, and Queen consort of the United Kingdom.
Ornithoptera alexandrae, or the Queen Alexandra’s birdwing butterfly, is now known as the largest species of butterfly in the world and soon became the prize for lepidopterology and collectors of butterflies across the world. With female butterflies measuring 25 centimeters or 9.8 inches across, these majestic butterflies now had man as a threat as well as the spiders and birds with which it usually contend . In 1951, the eruption of Mount Lamington destroyed a large area of the species’ former habitat, making the Queen Alexandra’s birdwing butterfly incredibly rare. Now restricted to the forests of the Oro Province in eastern Papua New Guinea, the species is mostly threatened by both poaching and loss of habitat.
In 1978 the Franklin Mint issued a commemorative non-circulating legal-tender coin for Papua New Guinea featuring the Queen Alexandra’s birdwing butterfly. These coins feature the denomination of 100 Kina and were struck in .900-fine gold weighing 9.57 grams. The coin depicts the Papua New Guinea arms, which is the famous bird-of-paradise over a traditional spear and kundu drum on the obverse and the Goliath birdwing butterfly on the reverse. In total 4,751 proofs and 400 special uncirculated pieces were minted. Over the years an unknown amount of these coins has been lost to melting for the gold value.
Since the coin was released for collectors in 1978, the population of Queen Alexandra’s birdwing butterflies has dwindled. With habitation loss from logging and planting of palms for palm oil and hearts of palm, the area where the butterfly can survive has greatly disappeared. Scientific observations of the Queen Alexandra’s birdwing have seen a dramatic decline in the species. In 1992 around 150 were spotted in a 10-day period, by 2008 a mere 21 adults – fewer than one butterfly per acre – were observed. This fact has only increased the value of the illegal black-market trade for collectors with specimens reportedly reaching $8,500 to $10,000 USD in 2007. In contrast to this, the coin – presently melting for around $500 with gold at $1,900 – is a much better and legal option for collectors being offered for $500 to $600 on eBay.
Sadly, it appears that the population of the surviving coins surpasses the surviving population of the Queen Alexandra’s birdwing butterfly. From its discovery in 1906, it was soon an endangered species and a mere 100 years later may completely disappear from the world only to be seen in museum collections, photographs, and on a coin.
- "Queen Alexandra's birdwing" Wikipedia.org
- "Albert Stewart Meek" Wikipedia.org
- Barton, Gerry; Dietrich, Stefan (2010). This Ingenious and Singular Apparatus
- "The Mysterious Fate of the World’s Largest Butterfly" Undark.org