A kaleidoscope of beautiful birdwings

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We have completed digitising the Museum’s birdwing butterfly collection. Images of more than 8000 specimens have been released onto the Museum’s data portal for anyone in the world to access. This digitisation project has enabled us to gather accurate information about what we have within our collection and this new online resource will support conservation plans to protect endangered species for the future.

The Museum’s birdwings collection contains many interesting and spectacular specimens. Our previous blog provides insight into how these species have captured the fascination of amateurs and naturalists. 

mosaic bw
These images have been created by a program which searches and sort thousands of images of specimens on the basis of colour.

The Museum’s birdwing collection contains over 8,000 adult specimens and over 100 immature stages (eggs, larvae and pupae). We have photographed the front and back of each specimen resulting in over 17,000 images in total. Museum developer Alice Butcher has written a program which can search and sort thousands of images of specimens on the basis of colour. We have used this algorithm to with the birdwings dataset to produce images above and below as a tool to demonstrate the scale of our digitisation aims and the uses of natural history collection data in a novel way. 

By zooming in its possible to see how many specimens make up each image.


Birdwings are a group of the Papilionidae (swallowtail butterflies) comprising the genera Ornithoptera, Trogonoptera and Troides, which contain 36 species between them. These have been preserved at the museum since the first birdwing butterfly was brought into the collections over 200 years ago. The specimen below is one of the oldest. It was described in 1779 and collected sometime before this. This project has helped to recount the total collections holdings as every year new donations are received.

Papilio amphimedon collected by Cramer in 1779
Papilio amphimedon collected in 1779

More than half of the specimens come from the 18 species of Troides genera within the Museum’s collection. However, it is one of the 11 species of Ornithoptera (Ornithoptera priamus) found in the collection that is the most numerous with 2,168 specimens and took 22 days to work through.

Chart of birdwing breakdown
Pie chart showing the amount of specimens of the three birdwing genera.
Birdwings map
Distribution map of birdwing butterflies held in the Museum’s collection (Troides – yellow, Trogonoptera – green, Ornithoptera – blue).

Through the digitisation of this collection, and transcription of specimen label data, it is possible to map in detail the distribution of these species and trends in changing habitats across time. The range of all birdwings spreads from Southeastern Asia to Northern Australasia, with some species spreading to India and Sri Lanka in the west, China and Nepal in the north and others found in Northern Australia in the southernmost extent of their range.

Conserving these species for the future

Digitising and displaying these specimens will highlight the important research done using the Museum collections and engage the public and other researchers across the world to join initiatives in trying to save these spectacular but very fragile butterflies. The conservation of some species of birdwings is a priority and the accessibility of data is critical to support this process. Although some literature is available on this group, books are prohibitively expensive and with distributional records insufficient, limiting the capacity of researchers, organisations and governments to produce accurate threat assessments and to set up action plans. Creating access to comprehensive sets of data across time and geography, such as museum collections, will assist the monitoring of species and habitats. Therefore free online access through the Museum’s Data Portal will open this data to everyone raising awareness about the beauty but fragility of this important group of organisms.

Both the digitisation project and display were made possible through the generous support of a donor.

Experience the beautiful birdwings

Visit the Queen Alexandra’s birdwing display in the Rothschild Room at the Museum at Tring, open until December 2019.

To stay in touch with the Digital Collections Programme you can follow us on twitter or instagram or find out more about the programme on the website.

One Reply to “A kaleidoscope of beautiful birdwings”

  1. Such an interesting digital project. The butterflies look beautiful and the program used to display them is very innovative and creative.

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