The Giant Atlas Moth


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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Giant Atlas Moth (Source: wwb.co.uk)
Giant Atlas Moth (Source: wwb.co.uk)

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The family Saturniidae, known as saturniids, include the largest species of moths.  They belong to the order Lepidoptera, with an estimated 2,300 described species worldwide. The saturniids include such Lepidoptera as the Atlas moth (Attacus atlas), the polyphemus moth (Antheraea polyphemus) also known as the giant Silkmoth, the imperial moth (Eacles imperialis), and the regal moth (Citheronia regalis) also called the royal walnut moth.

While the saturniids are lightweights compared to other insects, they can grow to some impressive sizes. The adult saturniids are large in size, with their heavy bodies covered in hairlike scales and lobed wings. The hind wings overlap the forewings, giving the effect of an unbroken wing surface. They have small heads with reduced mouth parts. Some species are often colored bright, which may mislead first-time observers to refer to them as butterflies. Female are larger and weigh more than the males. In general, the males have a larger, broader antennae.

Today, I came across the above video of an Atlas moth, found in the tropical and subtropical forests of Southeast Asia and the Malay archipelago.

Atlas moths have large wingspans about 10 inches across (25cm). A record specimen of the tropical Atlas moth from Java measured 10.3 inches (262 mm), with a surface area of 62 square inches (400 square cm).

While skimming the internet, I came across the following lines in Chinese:

不知何時窗邊飛來這隻不速之客
展開的翅膀像是雙頭蛇
喜歡的人或許覺得牠很美
從小就對蛾類敬而遠之的自己
卻只敢瞇著眼睛不敢正視呢
– 蛇頭蛾, 三義

Bùzhī héshí chuāng biān fēi lái zhè zhī bùsùzhīkè
zhǎnkāi de chìbǎng xiàng shì shuāng tóu shé
xǐhuān de rén huòxǔ juédé tā hěn měi
cóngxiǎo jiù duì é lèi jìng’éryuǎnzhī dì zìjǐ
què zhǐ gǎn mī zhuó yǎnjīng bù gǎn zhèngshì ne
– shétóu é, sānyì

I do not know when the window flew only uninvited guest
Spread wings like a two-headed snake
Like people may think it is beautiful
I grew up on the moths themselves at arm’s length
But only dared to squint afraid to face it
– Snakeheads moth, Sanyi

Though the name Atlas moths derived from either the Titan of Greek mythology for their gigantic size or their map-like wing patterns seems appropriate, the Chinese name 蛇頭蛾 (shétóu é) meaning “snakeheads moth” is more pertinent in referring to the  outer tips of the  spread wings  that look like a two-headed snake.

Though the name Atlas moths derived from either the Titan of Greek mythology for their gigantic size or their map-like wing patterns seems appropriate, the Chinese name 蛇頭蛾 (shétóu é) meaning “snakeheads moth” is more pertinent in referring to the outer tips of the wings that look like the head of a snake.

Life Cycle of the Atlas moth
Mating

The Atlas moths are wobbly fliers. After emerging from the cocoon, the female does not stray far from her discarded cocoon. She seeks a perch conducive for the air currents to carry the strong pheromones released by her. The male Atlas moths sensing the pheromones with the chemoreceptors located on their large feathery antennae home in on the sexually passive female.

Embryo

After mating, the female Atlas moth lays many spherical eggs about 2.5 mm in diameter on the undersides of leaves.

Larval stage

About two weeks later, dusty-green caterpillars adorned with fleshy spines along their backs covered in a waxy white substance hatch from the eggs.

Giant Atlas moth caterpillars (Source: cambstimes.co.uk)
Giant Atlas moth caterpillars (Source: cambstimes.co.uk)

The caterpillars feed voraciously on the foliage of certain citrus trees. Alternative recorded foodplants include leaves of apple, ash, cherry, lilac, plum, willows, and other evergreen trees.

Pupal stage

On reaching a length of about 4.5 inches (115 mm), the caterpillars pupate within a papery cocoon interwoven into desiccated leaves. The adult moths emerge after about four weeks.

Imago – the adult stage

After spending about a month in their cocoons, Atlas Moths emerge as beautiful, sexually mature winged creatures. Unfortunately, this imago stage is short-lived and the moths die within a week or two after spreading their wings.

The following video shows in detail the development of the Atlas Moths: the hatched larvae from eggs, the various stages of the caterpillar, molting,  pupating, and the emergence of the adult Atlas moth.

The cocoons of the Atlas Moths serve as purses in Taiwan.

Some sericulturists in India cultivate Atlas moths for their silk. Unlike the silk produced by the Silkworm moth (Bombyx mori), the brown, wool-like silk secretes as broken strands from the cocoons of the Atlas moth. This silk known as fagara silk seems to have greater durability.

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