African giant swallowtail (Papilio antimachus)

GenusPapilio (1)
SizeWingspan: 20 – 23 cm (2)

Classified as Data Deficient (DD) on the IUCN Red List (1).

The beautiful African giant swallowtail has the distinction of being the largest butterfly in Africa (3). Its long, narrow wings are orange and brown, with black markings. Like other members of the Papilionidae family, the African giant swallowtail has well-developed legs, and the area at the front of the head between the eyes is hairy. This family is also recognised by very short palpi, short projections below the head between which the tongue is coiled (3). Female African giant swallowtails are considerably smaller than males, with less elongated forewings (2).

Occurs in central and western Africa, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Congo Republic, Central African Republic, Gabon, Angola, Cameroon, Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Liberia and Sierra Leone (2).

The African giant swallowtail inhabits primary tropical forest, up to 1,500 metres above sea level. Male African giant swallowtails are often encountered near streams or damp mud while the females often keep to the tree-tops and are rarely seen (2) (4)

The life cycle of the African giant swallowtail begins with the laying of a single, smooth, nearly spherical egg. From this egg hatches a larva, which, like most larvae of Papilio species, probably feed on plants of the Rutaceae family (3). The larvae possess an extensible, fleshy forked organ called the osmeterium in the first thoracic segment. The osmeterium is connected to a scent gland, and when the larva is threatened or disturbed, it thrusts out the osmeterium through a slit in the thorax, filling the surrounding air with a repulsive odour (2) (3). After going through five changes of skin, (instars), the chrysalis, or pupa, develops. The pupa is attached to a plant, and held in an upright position by a thread of silk around the middle (3).

Female African giant swallowtails are generally more retiring in their habits, while males may congregate at drinking spots or be observed flying swiftly alongside streams. Males of Papilio species can be highly aggressive, and sometimes jostle and fight while defending a territory along a stretch of river (4).

Not enough is known about this giant butterfly species for the IUCN to assess its risk of extinction (1), but it is known that its forest habitat is being rapidly destroyed. This could swiftly deteriorate the status of a butterfly that is already scarce (5).

The African giant swallowtail has been recorded from several protected areas (5), including the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda (6). In 1991, the IUCN/SSC Lepidoptera Group published an action plan for the conservation of swallowtail butterflies, which recommended that all rainforest reserves within the distribution of the African giant swallowtail should be surveyed to see if this species is present. For those reserves that do hold populations of this unique butterfly, the adequacy of habitat protection should be assessed. More information on the African giant swallowtail’s vulnerability to forest loss and degradation is also needed (5), to determine the status of this impressive species and inform any future conservation actions that may be necessary.

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  1. IUCN Red List (December, 2009)