First known specimen of Queen Alexandra's birdwing, showing bullet holes

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Butterflies with bullet holes

The holes in this specimen show the passion butterflies have inspired for centuries.

In 1906, English naturalist and explorer Albert Stewart Meek was two days deep into the rainforests of New Guinea when he spotted an enormous butterfly. With little hesitation, he shot it out of the sky.

He wasn't the only collector in the 1800s and early 1900s to capture large flying insects in this way. Obsessed with possessing spectacular specimens, they would sometimes shoot them, using special ammunition to limit the damage caused.

World-record wingspan

Meek presented his exciting find to the renowned zoologist Walter Rothschild, who prepared a scientific description of the butterfly - the first known example of its kind. Rothschild named the new species Queen Alexandra's birdwing, Ornithoptera alexandrae, in honour of Britain’s queen at the time.

The specimen is now housed in the Museum’s Lepidoptera collection along with several other shot birdwings. It has an astounding wingspan of nearly 20 centimetres across.

Today, Queen Alexandra’s birdwing is recognised as the world’s biggest butterfly. The largest specimen, which has a wingspan of 27.3cm, is also cared for by the Museum.

Listen to Museum butterfly curator Dr Blanca Huertas talk about this birdwing butterfly and other special specimens on BBC Radio 4's Natural Histories.