Attacus atlas

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Atlas moth
Female with reduced antennae
Scientific classification Edit this classification
Domain: Eukaryota
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 described by Carl Linnaeus in his 1758 10th edition of Systema Naturae.

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 silk moths, females are noticeably larger and heavier than males, while males have broader antennae.[3][4][5]


Holometabolism (complete metamorphosis)
Eggs Larva (3rd instar) Pupa within cocoon Emerging from pupa Imago


Atlas moths lay a number of spherical eggs, 2.5 mm (0.098 in) in diameter, on the undersides of the leaves of food plants.


After approximately two weeks, dusty-green caterpillars hatch and feed on their egg-shell, and then the foliage of citrus, cinnamon, guava, and evergreen trees.[6] The caterpillars can grow to 11.5 cm (4.5 in) in length and 2.5 cm (0.98 in) in thickness. They have white, waxy, fleshy spines along their backs, which become more prominent at later instars. On the last abdominal segment beside the prolegs, there is a large green spot surrounded by an orange ring.[7]


After reaching a length of about 11.5 cm (4.5 in), the caterpillars 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


Detail of a male atlas moth imago's head, showing the large, feather-like antennae

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.

Females release pheromones through a gland on the end of the abdomen to attract a mate. Females stay near discarded cocoons, seeking out a perch where the air currents will best carry their pheromones. Males can detect and home in on these pheromones from several kilometers away using chemoreceptors located on their feathery antennae.[8]

The body is small compared to the wings. The upper side of the wings is reddish brown with a pattern of black, white, pink, and purple lines. There are triangular, scale-less windows bordered in black on each of the four wings. The undersides of the wings are paler. The tips of both forewings have prominent extensions that resemble the head of a snake. The resemblance which is exaggerated by movements of the wings when the moth is confronted by potential predators.[9]

Atlas moth compared to human hand

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.[10] 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.[11]


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 that resembles the head of a snake.[12][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.[13] Atlas moth cocoons are sometimes used as small pocket change purses in Taiwan.[citation needed] 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, make 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.[14]

The Japanese subspecies A. a. ryukyuensis, native to Yonaguni in the Yaeyama Islands.

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[15] native to southern India and Sri Lanka[16] is very similar in morphology to the much more widely distributed Attacus atlas. It was once considered a subspecies of A. atlas.[17] 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". 26 October 2018.
  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. ^ 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
  7. ^ Gosse, Philip Henry (1879). "The great Atlas moth of Asia (Attacus atlas, Linn.)". West, Newman & Company – via Gale Primary Sources.
  8. ^ Shepherd, G.M. (1994). "Chemical Senses". In Neurobiology 3rd Edition. Oxford University Press
  9. ^ Howse, P.E. (2010) Butterflies: Messages From Psyche Papadakis, 192 pp. ISBN 978-1901092806
  10. ^ "Spotlight: the atlas moth". Retrieved 2019-08-21.
  11. ^ Holloway, J.D. (1987). The Moths of Borneo, part 3: Lasiocampidae, Eupteroptidae, Bombycidae, Brahmaeidae, Saturniidae, Sphingidae. Southdene Sdn. Bhd., Kuala Lumpur
  12. ^ Yiu, V. (2006). Insecta Hongkongica. Hong Kong Discovery. Kowloon, Hong Kong. 655pp. ISBN 988-97173-9-5
  13. ^ 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
  14. ^ 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)
  15. ^ Moore, Frederic (1880). The Lepidoptera of Ceylon. Vol. II. London: L. Reeve & co. pp. 124–125.
  16. ^ Peigler, Richard S. (1989). A Revision of the Indo-Australian Genus Attacus (Lepidoptera: Saturniidae). Lepidoptera Research Foundation. ISBN 0961146427. Retrieved 5 June 2018.
  17. ^ Savela, Markku. "Attacus atlas (Linnaeus, 1758)". Lepidoptera and Some Other Life Forms. Retrieved November 10, 2018.

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