One of the country’s rarest species of butterfly is making a comeback at Hinze Dam, thanks to a conservation project to help the species survive.

Once a common sight in South East Queensland, the Richmond birdwing butterfly is now under threat of extinction due to habitat loss, inbreeding and an invasive weed called ‘Dutchman’s pipe’ which is poisonous to the larvae.

After a surprise discovery of the butterfly inhabiting a site at Hinze Dam, a conservation project involving Seqwater, the Richmond Birdwing Conservation Network (RBCN), The Gold Coast Catchment Association and Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service has been established to help the species flourish.

Seqwater field ranger Mitchell Thomas-Carr said the Richmond birdwing butterfly, one of Australia’s largest and most spectacular butterflies, was discovered at Hinze by a cyclist who had been using the mountain bike trails at the dam.

“Working with the RBCN and Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, we visited the site and found numerous eggs and larvae of the butterfly growing on the Dutchman’s pipe vine,” Mr Thomas-Carr said.

“The butterfly is a unique species in South East Queensland. Unfortunately, the Dutchman pipe vine is fatally attractive to the Richmond birdwing as female butterflies find the weed extremely attractive as a food plant for their larvae.

“The result is that the emerging hungry larvae are quickly poisoned by the toxins in the leaves of the Dutchman’s pipe vine.”

A Richmond birdwing butterfly Credit John Braid/Shutterstock

Mr Thomas-Carr said the butterfly was normally dependent on a species of food plant called the Richmond Birdwing Vine.

“An unusual aspect of this discovery is that while there were a high number of butterflies at Hinze, there was no evidence of the Richmond Birdwing Vine growing in the area,” Mr Thomas-Carr said.

“To help the butterfly thrive, we established a recovery program, carried out work to control the Dutchman’s pipe vine at the Hinze Dam site and introduced 150 Richmond Birdwing Vine plants into the area.

“Along with the Richmond birdwing, the site is home to other native butterfly species so we hope this initiative will help those other species thrive as well.”

As part of the project, a nursery at Hinze Dam has been restored to cultivate the native vine.

The re-opened nursery was named in honour of Laurie Fairall – a retired Seqwater ranger who worked at Hinze Dam and originally established the nursery during the Stage 3 upgrade of the dam in 2011.

Mr Thomas-Carr said Laurie had played a vital role in the protection and restoration of the Hinze Dam catchment during his 30-plus years on the job.

Plans are now underway to develop the nursery for educational tours, to teach visitors how to propagate native plants and keep the catchment clean and as weed-free as possible.

Richmond birdwing butterfly facts

• The Richmond birdwing is one of Australia's largest butterflies with a wingspan of up to 16 cm in females and 13 cm in males.

• The species is listed as Vulnerable in Queensland (Queensland Nature Conservation Act 1992). It is ranked as a critical priority under the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection (EHP).

• The adult butterfly lives for approximately 4 to 6 weeks.

• This large butterfly has a yellow body with a red thorax (both the males and females). The red and yellow colours on the thorax are a defence mechanism for the butterfly. The warning colours are a sign of toxicity to most predators.

• Males upper wings are an iridescent green and black in colour, the underside is blue, green, yellow and black. Females are dark brownish in colour with white and yellow patches on both upper and lower wings.

• The scientific name for the butterfly species is Ornithoptera richmondia

• The female butterfly can lay 60 to 100 eggs, depositing them on different leaves and vines.

• Research has shown that the male will travel up to 4 kilometres from where it pupates while the female will travel up to 30 kilometres from where it pupates.