AUSTRALASIAN Tropical & Subtropical Moist Broadleaf Forest
Moths and Butterflies

Order Lepidoptera: Moths and Butterflies


Butterflies and moths around the world reach their highest diversity in the warm and wet lowland rainforest, and it is no different in Australia. Of the over 400 species of butterflies found in Australia, nearly half of them are associated with the various types of rainforest in the northern and eastern parts of the continent, with the lowland rainforests of North Queensland and Cape York Peninsula generally considered the areas of highest diversity for butterflies. Not only are the tropical rainforests good for diversity, but the species here include some of the most spectacular moths and colourful butterflies. Although New Guinea is not as well surveyed it is presumed to even more diverse. They are especially active in the hotter and wetter times of the year.

Family Geometridae: 'Emerald Moths'

Members of the family Geometridae begin life as larvae that we call ‘inchworms’ or ‘looper caterpillars’, named because of the distinctive way they travel. They later develop into many of the small and medium sized moths that lay flat against trunks in the Australian tropical rainforest and most other parts of the world. They are often coloured in browns or greens (‘emerald moths’) to blend in with the tree trunks and the lichen.

Family Uraniidae

This family contains about 700 species throughout the world, with 36 of them recorded so far in Australia. The subfamily Uraniinae includes some of the most spectacular, including many large and colourful day-flying moths in the rainforests of Asia, New Guinea and Australia.

Lyssa Moth upperparts (Sepik, PNG)
Lyssa Moth wing underparts (Sepik, PNG)

Lyssa Moth. These stunning moths are swallowtail in shape and size and are strikingly marked in black, dark brown and white. They fly at night around rainforest, from Australia to tropical Asia

Family Sphingidae: 'Hawk Moths'

The hawk moths are found all over the world, including over 65 species in Australia and, as with most Lepidoptera, there are more species in the tropics. They are often large moths with thick bodies, and are distinctively shaped like a jet fighter; this is presumably more aerodynamic than many other moths. The species in this family have a distinctive larval stage; the caterpillar has a large spine sticking out from the rear of the body, are often colourful, and have false eye spots. As an adult moth they have a large and obvious feeding proboscis, which they use to poke into relatively deep flowers, hovering as they take the nectar. 

(Papua New Guinea)

Gnathothlibus spp. 'Hawk Moth'. Llarge, handsome brown moths with distinctive white lines along the side of the body, and the larvae feed mainly on grape vines from the family Vitaceae.

Family Saturniidae

This family has about 1500 species around the world, however only 15 of these are found in Australia. The family includes many spectacular types, including the ‘Emperor moths’. Most species in the family are large, and the body is usually thick and hairy. The large wings usually have a triangular ‘window’, where the scales are transparent, and the tip of the forewings bend out. The antennae are distinct; they are held out back behind the head, and have many small projections off either side along their length.

(Ferntree Lodge, Daintree, Queensland)

Coscinocera hercules, 'Hercules Moth'. Biggest moth of the Australian tropical rainforest, indeed on the whole continent. Further, this species and tropical Asian ‘Atlas moth’ compete for biggest moths in the world, if measured by wing area. Colours are various shades of leaf browns with (as with many species in this family) small ‘windows’ in wings. Males have long ‘tails’ off the wings (pictured above). The large caterpillars feed off leaves of some rainforest pioneers including Bleeding Heart and Celerywood. Adults are very short lived, generally seen in the wetter months from January to April.

Family Papilionidae: 'Swallowtail Butterflies'

This family includes some of the bigger and prettier butterflies of the Australian tropical rainforest. The common colour pattern is a background of black with smaller patches of brighter red, green, blue or white. Most species are large, and many have elaborate tails off the wings

Papilio spp.

Some of the species in this genus are known as the ‘orchard butterflies’ as their caterpillars have been found on cultivated citrus plants. In their natural habitat in the rainforest they live on the other species in the citrus family, the Rutaceae.


Papilio aegeus, 'Orchard Butterfly'. Large black and white butterfly. Female has more white (above, upper image). Male more black (above, lower image). Called 'orchard' because caterpillars eat leaves of farmed citrus plants. Found rainforest and edge eastern Australia and New Guinea. 

Ornithoptera spp.‘Birdwings’

Birdwings are centred mainly in New Guinea, where the group includes species that are the largest of all butterflies. At some flowering plants, larger individual birdwings are larger than native birds such as sunbirds and Myzomela honeyeaters. Birdwings frequently glide and are often high up in the canopy.

The large size of a Birdwing Butterfly (Crowne Island, PNG)

Birdwings are centred mainly in south-east Asia and New Guinea. They are also found south into tropical and subtropical Australia. In the latter country there are 3 species are found in the rainforests along the east coast. The 3 species found in Australia have bright green and yellow males, with the larger females being a less colourful black and white with some yellow. The larvae of the Australian species all feed on leaves of various Aristolochid vines. The 3 species found in Australia are geographically separated.

(North Queensland)

Ornithoptera euphorion, 'Cairns Birdwing Butterfly'.

Richmond Birdwing Butterfly (image by Damon Ramsey)(O'Reillys, Lamington National Park, Australia)

Ornithoptera richmondia, 'Richmond Birdwing Butterfly'. Found in south-east Queensland to northern NSW.

Family Nymphalidae

This family has over 80 species in Australia. It is a wide and varied group that is better viewed in the different sub-groups.

Danaine clade

Danaus spp., 'Tigers', 'Monarchs' and 'Wanderers'.

(Crowne Island, PNG)

Euploea (maybe eunice), '(Blue-banded King) Crow' caterpillar. 

(Dei Dei Village, Papua New Guinea)

Danaus petilia, 'Lesser Wanderer'.

(Ferguson Island, Papua New Guinea)

Danaus affinis, 'Malay Tiger', 'Swamp Tiger'. Interesting fact: this animal is not a tiger, but a butterfly. Found throughout tropical Asia, south to north-eastern Australia.

Satyrine clade

Taenaris spp. 'Owl Butterflies'

These small but striking butterflies are usually distinguished by a pair of orange ringed circles with black and white pupils on a contrasting white underside of the wings. The caterpillar larvae feed mostly on the toxic leaves of cycads. They are mostly found around New Guinea.

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