© Greg Kerr (Australia, Adelaide)

Brand new species of swallowtail butterfly discovered on Fiji

The Natural History Museum has contributed to the discovery of a new species of papilionid butterfly, officially named Papilio natewa, on the Pacific Island of Vanua Levu, Fiji.

The Natural History Museum has contributed to the discovery of a new species of papilionid butterfly, officially named Papilio natewa, on the Pacific Island of Vanua Levu, Fiji.

The discovery is all the more remarkable as there are only two swallowtail butterfly species previously known from this part of the Pacific; Papilio schmeltzi, endemic to Fiji and Papilio godeffroyi, endemic to Samoa.

The new Papilio natewa species measures eight centimetres across, with two elongated edges projecting from the hind wings. It has striking black and white zigzags emblazoned on the top of its wings, and a cream and black speckled pattern underneath, all gilded with soft yellows and blue eye spots.

It’s such a striking butterfly that scientists are wondering how it has gone undiscovered for so long.

John Tennent, Scientific Associate at the Natural History Museum, says: “The discovery of a new swallowtail in the Pacific is hard to believe.

“The new swallowtail is a big butterfly, recognizable from a distance. There were previously only two swallowtail butterflies known from the region, endemic to Fiji and Samoa. Both are large but dull in appearance. To find a third as large, colourful and unusual, with its long, sword-like tails really is remarkable.”

The new butterfly, named this week after the Natewa Peninsula where it was discovered, was first found and photographed by the Australian ornithologist Greg Kerr, who was working on the Fijian island of Vanua Levu in 2017.

The image was sent for identification to lepidopterists around the world, who were puzzled as to what it might be. Not only that, but the butterfly simply did not fit with what was known about butterfly diversity on Fiji, or even in the wider region as a whole.

After confirming that the butterfly had been spotted on multiple occasions, earlier this year a research team returned to Vanua Levu to find the new species and discover more about its ecology. After a few months of field work, the butterfly’s true habitat was discovered.

John Tennent, who was part of the research team tasked with finding the butterfly, says, “I arrived in July 2018, but it was not until early August that I found its probable true habitat and was able to make observations on its behaviour, habitat and ecology. There is still much more to learn about this new species, as the early stages of its life and even its host plant remain unknown.

“It does make you wonder what else awaits discovery in the world’s wild places. The key to finding new and interesting things is simply to go and look.”

One of the reasons Papilio natewa has remained undiscovered for so long may lie in the butterfly’s habits. Unusually for a swallowtail, the butterfly seems to be a true forest species, spending most of its life inside the forest at elevations above 250 metres.

It is also unclear as to how the butterfly evolved on the Fijian island. Genetic analysis  suggests that the new species has some affinity to Papilio anactus, found in eastern Australia.

The paper has been published in  a German journal, Nachrichten Entomologischen Vereins Apollo N.F. The few specimens collected are now in the Fiji National Insect Collection.

ENDS

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