You could easily be excused for thinking these curtains of vines hanging o this large White Fig (Ficus virens) is the common Monkey Rope Vine (Parsonsia straminea). However what you’re looking at is actually a population of the Richmond Birdwing Vine (Pararistolochia praevenosa) that is over 200 years old. As most of you who have tried planting this threatened species of vine know, it can grow at a painstakingly slow pace. So, the sight of these vines reaching well into the rainforest canopy is something to behold.

The Richmond Birdwing Vine is the principal larval host plant for its namesake, the vulnerable Richmond Birdwing butterfly (Ornithoptera richmondia). The vine itself has become threatened mostly due to extensive loss of lowland subtropical rainforest, grazing pressures and competition from invasive weeds since European colonisation. Like most rainforest plant species the Richmond Birdwing Vine is fire sensitive and vulnerable to inappropriate fire regimes. Prolonged drought and climate change have also caused further declines.

Birdwing Vines

This old-growth population of Richmond Birdwing Vine is tucked away in a rocky gully on a Land for Wildlife property at Dulong. In 2007, the owners Ralph and Edwina Shannon, signed a conservation agreement for the establishment of Headwaters Nature Refuge, legally protecting almost 25 hectares of their property. Their Richmond Birdwing Vines form one of the oldest, secure populations that researchers know of.

The unique topographic and biological features of this particular site provide perfect conditions for the Richmond Birdwing Vine to grow. Firstly, the vines tend to grow particularly well alongside White Figs. This is because the vines like moisture and White Fig roots hold a lot of moisture. Secondly, the White Fig is semi deciduous (loses its leaves only for a very short period) which gives the vines a little boost of extra sunlight each year in spring.

In the wild, hardly any seedlings are naturally regenerating; the recruitment rate is almost at 0%. Why? Brush Turkeys bury the seeds by scratching (thus a dispersal agent), but if the turkeys eat the pulp of the fruit including the seeds and they pass through their gut, the seeds are no longer viable. Fortuitously, at this particular site, the vines are recruiting. The rocky substrate provides perfect protection for the vines’ seeds and seedlings.

Birdwing Vine
Dr Don Sands, a retired CSIRO entomologist, has spent much of his career researching the Richmond Birdwing and its host plants. He has seen the Headwaters Nature Refuge site on a number of occasions and suggests that it is a core breeding site for the butterfly (another being Mary Cairncross Scenic Reserve). Without these two sites, the Richmond Birdwing would struggle to survive.

Don also stresses the importance of community propagated and grown vines, such as those on Land for Wildlife properties. Planted vines, which are often watered during drought periods, are essential when wild vines are too tough and unpalatable for larvae.

Something interesting that you may not know about Richmond Birdwing larvae is that they are cannibals! They feed on other eggs, larvae and occasionally pupae. The risk of cannibalism in this species is less when soft, sub-terminal leaves of the Richmond Birdwing Vine are available. All the more reason to start planting and caring for some vines on your property.

The Richmond Birdwing Conservation Network (RBCN) is a community-based conservation group operating within the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland. The RBCN’s goal is to re- establish healthy populations of the Richmond Birdwing and its lowland food plant, the Richmond Birdwing Vine across their natural ranges. RBCN members are doing this by establishing habitat corridors, collecting seeds, running workshops, recording sightings and investigating the impacts of climate change on the Richmond Birdwing.

You can help the RBCN by:
• Becoming a member.
• Adopting a butterfly – see www.wildlife.org.au for more information.
• Joining the RBCN Facebook group.
• Reporting sightings of the Richmond Birdwing and its host vines to [email protected] wildlife.org.au or
3221 0194.

References and Further Reading:
Richmond Birdwing Conservation Network www.richmondbirdwing.org.au
Sands DPA and New TR (2013) Conservation of the Richmond Birdwing Butterfly in Australia. Springer Netherlands
Sands D (2008) Conserving the Richmond Birdwing Butterfly over two decades: Where to next? Ecological Management and Restoration, 9:1, 4-16.
Land for Wildlife SEQ newsletters:
• January 2007 – Richmond Birdwing Butterfly, Part 1: their ecology.
• April 2007 – Richmond Birdwing Butterfly, Part 2: their host vines.
• July 2015 – Foam Bark Gully Birdwing Corridor.
• January 2014 – Recovery of the Richmond Birdwing butterfly.

Article by Danielle Crawford Land for Wildlife Officer Sunshine Coast Council

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