Tracking Africa's Largest Butterfly on the Hilltops of Liberia

The giant African swallowtail Robert Nash via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.5

Little is known about Africa's largest butterfly, the giant African swallowtail.

But scientists do know that Papilio antimachus is in decline due to habitat destruction and it is also poached by insect collectors, who seek it for its beautiful, orange and black wings. One specimen recently sold for $1,000 on eBay, says Szabolcs Sáfián, who studies butterflies at the University of West Hungary.

As it glides about on elegant wings that can measure 10 inches or more tip to tip, the swallowtail almost looks like a bird, Sáfián says. It uses these wings to fly high above the canopy of rain forests in western and central Africa during much of the year, making it difficult to study. During the course of a recent expedition to study butterflies in the Nimba Mountains, in north-central Liberia, Sáfián noticed that during the breeding season, male swallowtails congregate on grassy hilltops.

He realized that this presented a rare opportunity to learn more about the swallowtails. What if he could, at this time, attach monitors to the insects that would allow him to study exactly where they went?

He floated this suggestion on ResearchGate, a social network for scientists, and several researchers guided him toward the right type of transmitter.

Sáfián's initial tests found that the 0.2 gram-GPS monitors he decided upon can be safely attached to the swallowtails and don't interfere with flight. In February he plans to test the devices on dozens of butterflies in the Nimba Mountains, and he plans to put up radio towers in the rugged area that should allow the researchers to track the butterflies' movements over an area of 1,500 acres, he says.

This will help researchers better understand the butterfly's biology and perhaps even help them classify their conservation status, Sáfián says. They are currently thought to be rare but are listed as "data deficient" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, an environmental group.

The north-central region of Liberia, where the swallowtail is found, hosts a high level of biodiversity, and much of the area is in a protected park known as the Mount Nimba Strict Nature Reserve. ArcelorMittal, a Luxembourg-based multinational steel corporation, operates a nearby mine, has paid for several ecological studies of the area's species and is supporting Sáfián's swallowtail-tracking work, he says. The Ebola outbreak in Liberia and neighboring countries has forced Sáfián to twice postpone the anticipated beginning of his project, but he still plans to initiate it in February.

The giant swallowtails have no known natural predators besides humans, because their bodies contain chemicals called glycosides that are quite toxic, says Sáfián. They can also spray a cloud of foul-smelling chemicals into the air if disturbed.

"Eating one would almost certainly kill you," Sáfián says. Luckily, he just plans to study them.

A sketch of the male and female giant African swallowtail, using the old scientific name for the species (Druryia antimachus) Robert Henry Fernando Rippon