Brilliant Rainforest Butterflies

Skyrail Nature Diary: April 2006

There are two iconic and strikingly beautiful butterflies in Australia’s Tropical Rainforests, the electric blue Ulysses and the dazzling jade, Cairns Birdwing.

The Ulysses Butterfly (Papilio ulysses) is perhaps the most popular and recognisable resident of Tropical North Queensland. A large example of the swallowtail species, the Ulysses has iridescent blue upper wings, trimmed in black, with darker, drab underwings.

Like most butterflies, the Ulysses rests with its wings in an upright position, making them difficult to spot when sitting amongst flowers and foliage, however, when in flight, the bright blue Ulysses can be seen from several metres away.

The Ulysses’ favourite food plant is the Pink Euodia (Melicope elleryana), a riverine rainforest species which is found along Queensland’s north-eastern coastline, some areas in New South Wales and even up to Papua New Guinea. The Pink Euodia is a very hardy, fast-growing species, which has seen it widely cultivated domestically. The spread of this plant, and its use in landscaping and gardens, has seen the Ulysses widen its distribution throughout the region.

The Ulysses Butterflies can be seen in Tropical North Queensland year-round, although they are most abundant during the ‘green season’ from December to March.

The Cairns Birdwing (Ornithoptera priamus) has a wingspan of up to 20cm, making it Australia’s largest butterfly; it is also one of the most handsome. While the males and females of this species look completely different, they are equally impressive.

The male, which is generally smaller than the female, has rich upper wing markings, an attractive combination of jade, gold and black. Meantime, the female is black and white with distinctive yellow markings on her hind wings. The abdomen of both sexes is yellow with a red thorax.

The Cairns Birdwings have a unique relationship with another rainforest resident, a vigorous large-leafed vine known as the Dutchman’s Pipe (Aristolochia tagala). The Dutchman’s Pipe, which is found growing in rainforest regions along Queensland’s north-eastern coastline, is the only species that the Cairns Birdwings’ will lay their eggs on.

Cairns Birdwing butterflies are widespread from Cooktown in the north to Sarina in the south; whilst they are most common in summer and autumn, they can still be found in winter and spring, albeit less frequently.

Skyrail, a 7.5km rainforest cableway travelling through the Barron Gorge National Park from Smithfield to Kuranda, provides the best views of the rainforest canopy and the dazzling Ulysses and Cairns Birdwing butterflies in their native environment.