Spectacular Forest-Dwelling Swallowtail Discovered in Fiji

©. Greg Kerr

Scientists call it a remarkable discovery in an area where butterfly wildlife was thought to be well known.

While determining the exact number of the planet's species would obviously be impossible, over the years experts and their statistical models have come to a figure of 8.7 million total species. At this point, 1.64 million have been named, leaving a whopping 81 percent of the planet's animals, plants and fungi unknown to us. And while the fact that we're losing species at an alarming rate is like watching a train wreck in slow motion – the Center for Biological Diversity notes that we are currently experiencing the worst spate of species die-offs since the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago – sometimes there are glimpses of beauty that inspire hope.

One such glimpse came as a surprise to scientists: A resplendent swallowtail butterfly (pictured above) discovered in a place where said scientists thought they already knew everything.

The large, new-to-science, swallowtail, Papilio natewa, was first photographed in 2017 by Australian ornithologist Greg Kerr, on the Pacific Island of Vanua Levu in Fiji.

Oxford University Museum of Natural History explains that when Kerr sent the image to specialists around the world for identification, they were all puzzled. But then during a more recent trip, John Tennent from Oxford University Museum of Natural History confirmed that it was indeed a new species.

"For such an unusual and large new butterfly to be discovered somewhere we thought was so well known is remarkable," said John Tennant, who is a Pacific butterfly specialist.

While Tennant is responsible for discovering and naming over a hundred new species and subspecies of butterflies in the last quarter of a century, he says that this beauty is "easily the most spectacular." The butterfly is unusually unique because there are only two other swallowtail butterfly species known in this part of the Pacific, and only one of those is from Fiji.

"Because they are large, conspicuous and often beautiful in appearance, Swallowtail butterflies have been intensively studied for over 150 years," says James Hogan, manager of butterfly collections at Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

It also appears to dwell in the forests, a true forest species, which is unusual for a swallowtail.

"To find a new species like this, not only in a small and reasonably well-studied area like Fiji, but also one which looks unlike any other Swallowtail is truly exceptional. For John Tennent, Greg Kerr and the rest of the team this really is a once-in-a-lifetime discovery."

Now we just need to tip-toe away and let P. natewa do its spectacular forest-dwelling swallowtail things without dumb humans getting in its way and wiping the species out. That these elusive beauties have remained undetected for so long gives me hope that they've got a fighting chance.