Attacus atlas

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Atlas moth
Attacus atlas qtl1.jpg
Scientific classification edit
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Arthropoda
Class: Insecta
Order: Lepidoptera
Family: Saturniidae
Genus: Attacus
A. atlas
Binomial name
Attacus atlas

Attacus atlas, the Atlas moth, is a large saturniid moth endemic to the forests of Asia. The species was first described by Carl Linnaeus in his 1758 10th edition of Systema Naturae.


Atlas moth compared to human hand

The Atlas moth is one of the largest lepidopterans, with a wingspan measuring up to 24 cm (9.4 in)[1] and a wing surface area of about 160 cm2 (~25 in2).[2] It is only surpassed in wingspan by the white witch (Thysania agrippina) and Attacus caesar,[1] and in wing surface area by the Hercules moth (Coscinocera hercules). As in most Lepidoptera, females are noticeably larger and heavier than males, while males have broader antennae.[3][4][5]

The body is disproportionately small compared to the wings. The upperside of the wings are reddish brown with a pattern of black, white, pink, and purple lines and triangular, scale-less windows bordered in black. The undersides of the wings are paler. Both forewings have a prominent extension at the tip, with markings that resemble the head of a snake, a resemblance which is exaggerated by movements of the wings when the moth is confronted by potential predators.[6]

The Atlas moth has a very short, vestigial proboscis, and they do not eat once they have emerged from the cocoon, relying on fat storage for energy. Every flight takes valuable energy and can take days off their already short lives, as it has a very short life span of only one to two weeks.[7] They conserve energy by flying as little as possible. A female will wait for a male to come along and be fertilised, lay eggs and die.


Habitat on Mount Kinabalu

Their habitat is primarily dry tropical forests, secondary forests, and shrublands across South Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia, including Borneo, though one specimen, an adult female, was found in 2012 in Ramsbottom, England after it landed on a windowsill, and presumed to have escaped from a private collection.[8][9]


Atlas moths are named after Atlas, the Titan of Greek mythology (due to their size). In Hong Kong, the Cantonese means "snake's head moth", referring to the prominent extension of the forewing which bears resemblance to the head of a snake.[10]

Life cycle[edit]

Holometabolism (complete metamorphosis)
Atlas Moth EGGS.jpg Attacus-atlas-caterpillar.jpg Attacus atlas-botanical-garden-of-bern 10.jpg EMEMRGING MOTH.jpg Attacus atlas London Zoo 01118-2.jpg
Eggs Larva (3rd instar) Pupa within cocoon Emerging from pupa Imago


Females release powerful pheromones through a gland on the end of the abdomen to attract a mate. The female does not stray far from the location of her discarded cocoon. She seeks out a perch where the air currents will best carry her pheromones. Males can detect and home in on these pheromones from several kilometers away using chemoreceptors located on their feathery antennae.[11] Once fertilized, the female lays a number of spherical eggs, 2.5 mm (0.098 in) in diameter, on the undersides of the leaves of food plants.


Dusty-green caterpillars hatch after approximately two weeks and feed voraciously on the foliage of citrus, cinnamon, guava, and evergreen trees.[12] The caterpillars can grow to 11.5 cm (4.5 in) in length and 2.5 cm (0.98 in) in thickness. They are adorned with white, waxy, fleshy spines along their backs, which become more prominent at later instars. Beside the prolegs on the last abdominal segment, there is a large green spot surrounded by an orange ring. The majority of the time their first meal is their egg-shell.[13]


After reaching a length of about 11.5 cm (4.5 in), the caterpillars are ready to pupate. They spin a 7–8 cm long papery cocoon interwoven with desiccated leaves and attach it to a twig using a strand of silk. The adult moths emerge from the cocoon after approximately four weeks depending on environmental factors.


Male Atlas moth

Adult Atlas moths are weak, unsteady fliers. To conserve energy, the moths rest during the day and fly at night. As they lack fully formed mouthparts, the adults cannot eat, subsisting entirely on fat reserves accumulated during the larval stage. As a result, they live for only a few days during which their sole objective is seeking out a mate. Adults may be found on wing throughout the year but are most abundant between November and January[citation needed].

Relationship with humans[edit]

Japanese stamp featuring an Atlas moth

In India, Atlas moths are cultivated for their silk in a non-commercial capacity. Unlike silk produced by the related domestic silkmoth (Bombyx mori), Atlas moth silk is secreted as broken strands and is therefore less desirable. This brown, wool-like silk, known as fagara, is thought to have greater durability.[14] Atlas moth cocoons are sometimes used as small pocket change purses in Taiwan.[15] There is ongoing research as to whether the silk of the Atlas moth can be used as a substitute for common silks. The quality of the heavier cocoons, less restrictive rearing conditions and competent properties of the fibers, makes the silk produced by the Atlas moth a potential alternative for common silks. A study concluded that the silk fibers of the atlas moth had about an 80% higher density of cells and growth compared to the silk fibers of the silk moth.[16]

The Japanese subspecies A. a. ryukyuensis, native to Yonaguni in the Yaeyama Islands, may have served as inspiration for the movie monster Mothra.

Similar taxa[edit]

The term "Atlas moth" is sometimes used mistakenly as a name for any species in the genus Attacus, of which there are over 20 named species and subspecies. Attacus taprobanis[17] native to southern India and Sri Lanka[18] is very similar in morphology to the much more widely distributed Attacus atlas. It was once considered a subspecies of A. atlas.[19] A few New World species can be mistaken for Atlas moths, specifically members of the genus Rothschildia. Very similar in appearance to the Asian Atlas moth, Rothschildia aurota is one of the largest members of its genus and a Neotropical relative.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Chapter 32: Largest Lepidopteran Wing Span | The University of Florida Book of Insect Records | Department of Entomology & Nematology | UF/IFAS".
  2. ^ "StackPath".
  3. ^ Watson, A. & Whalley, P.E.S. (1983). The Dictionary of Butterflies and Moths in Colour. Peerage Books, London, England. ISBN 0-907408-62-1
  4. ^ Robert G. Foottit & Peter H. Adler. 2009. Insect Biodiversity: Science and Society. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. ISBN 978-1-405-15142-9
  5. ^ Rainier Flindt. 2006. Amazing Numbers in Biology. Springer-Verlag, Berlin. ISBN 3-540-30146-1
  6. ^ Howse, P.E. (2010) Butterflies: Messages From Psyche Papadakis, 192 pp. ISBN 978-1901092806
  7. ^ "Spotlight: the atlas moth". Retrieved 2019-08-21.
  8. ^ Holloway, J.D. (1987). The Moths of Borneo, part 3: Lasiocampidae, Eupteroptidae, Bombycidae, Brahmaeidae, Saturniidae, Sphingidae. Southdene Sdn. Bhd., Kuala Lumpur
  9. ^ "Giant Atlas moth found on windowsill in Ramsbottom". BBC News. Retrieved 13 May 2020.
  10. ^ Yiu, V. (2006). Insecta Hongkongica. Hong Kong Discovery. Kowloon, Hong Kong. 655pp. ISBN 988-97173-9-5
  11. ^ Shepherd, G.M. (1994). "Chemical Senses". In Neurobiology 3rd Edition. Oxford University Press
  12. ^ Robinson, G.S., Ackery, P.R., Kitching, I.J., Beccaloni, G.W. & Hernández, L.M. (2001). Hostplants of the Moth and Butterfly Caterpillars of the Oriental Region. Southdene Sdn. Bhd., Kuala Lumpur & The Natural History Museum, London. 744 pp. ISBN 983-40053-3-4
  13. ^ Gosse, Philip Henry (1879). "The great Atlas moth of Asia (Attacus atlas, Linn.)". West, Newman & Company – via Gale Primary Sources.
  14. ^ Jolly, M.S., Sen, S.K., Sonwalkar, T.N. & Prasad, G.S. (1979). Non-mulberry silks. Food & Agriculture Organisation. United Nations, Serv. Bull. 29. Rome. xvii + 178pp
  15. ^ S. B. Jugale; et al. (2010). "Major Insect Pests of Xylocarpus granatum Koen., a Critically Endangered Mangrove Species of Maharashtra" (PDF). The Bioscan. Special Issue, Vol. 1: 257–268. ISSN 0973-7049.
  16. ^ Reddy, Narendra; Zhao, Yi; Yang, Yigi (2013). "Structure and Properties of Cocoons and Silk Fibers Produced by Attacus Atlas". Journal of Polymers and the Environment. 21: 16–23. doi:10.1007/s10924-012-0549-8. S2CID 9466921 – via Science Citation Index.{{cite journal}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  17. ^ Moore, Frederic (1880). The Lepidoptera of Ceylon. Vol. II. London: L. Reeve & co. pp. 124–125.
  18. ^ Peigler, Richard S. (1989). A Revision of the Indo-Australian Genus Attacus (Lepidoptera: Saturniidae). Lepidoptera Research Foundation. ISBN 0961146427. Retrieved 5 June 2018.
  19. ^ Savela, Markku. "Attacus atlas (Linnaeus, 1758)". Lepidoptera and Some Other Life Forms. Retrieved November 10, 2018.

External links[edit]