Understanding the Atlas Moth: Quick Essential Facts

The Atlas moth is a fascinating and unique species, known as one of the largest moths in the world.

With an impressive wingspan of over 9.8 inches, these majestic creatures never fail to capture attention and spark curiosity.

Native to the tropical and subtropical forests of Southeast Asia, Atlas moths have a short adult life span, living only for a few days to a week.

During this time, they focus on reproduction, as they don’t have functioning mouthparts and don’t eat.

Atlas Moth

Atlas Moth Overview

Species and Habitat

The Atlas moth (Attacus atlas) is native to various regions across Southeast Asia, including India, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.

These impressive creatures inhabit tropical forests, often settling on tree trunks and branches to rest during the day.

Size and Appearance

Atlas moths are considered one of the largest moth species in the world, with remarkable wingspans reaching over 9.8 inches (25 cm).

While females are often slightly larger than males, both showcase beautiful and intricate wing patterns.

To help illustrate the size difference between Atlas moths and other notable large moth species, here’s a comparison table:

Moth SpeciesWingspan Range
Atlas Moth9.8 – 12 inches
Luna MothUp to 4.5 inches
  • Wingspans over 9.8 inches
  • Females are slightly larger than males
  • Intricate wing patterns

Atlas Moth

Life Cycle

Eggs and Caterpillars

The life cycle of the Atlas moth (Attacus atlas) begins with the female laying her eggs on a suitable host plant. Some common examples are:

  • Citrus trees
  • Guava trees
  • Cinnamon trees

Eggs typically hatch within 1-2 weeks, and the caterpillars emerge.

Atlas moth caterpillars are found in various colors, like white, green, or brown, with unique features:

  • Spiky protuberances
  • Soft hairs
  • Bright warning colors

The caterpillar stage lasts 6-8 weeks. The larvae undergo several molts, increasing in size, before forming a pupa.

White Ringed Atlas Moth Caterpillar

Pupa and Cocoon

The next stage in the life cycle is the pupa stage. At this point, the caterpillar forms a silken cocoon attached to a twig or leaf.

The cocoon is distinctive in shape and color:

  • Oval shape
  • Tapered ends
  • Golden-brown color

The pupa stage lasts for 3-4 weeks. During this time, the caterpillar undergoes a metamorphosis, transforming into an adult moth within the cocoon.

Adult Moth

Upon emerging from the cocoon, the adult Atlas moth has a short lifespan of approximately one week.

Since they don’t have working mouthparts, adult moths rely on stored nutrients from the caterpillar stage.

Their primary purpose as adults is to find a mate and reproduce.

StageDurationCharacteristics
Caterpillar6-8 weeksEats host plant leaves, molts
Pupa3-4 weeksMetamorphosis inside the cocoon
Adult MothApproximately 1 weekReproduces, doesn’t eat or drink, short lifespan

Anatomy and Physiology

Wingspan and Markings

The Atlas moth (Attacus atlas) is known for its impressive size, with a wingspan reaching up to 9.8 inches.

Females are slightly larger than males. Some characteristics of the Atlas moth’s wings include:

  • Distinctive triangular shape
  • Transparent “windows” on the tip
  • Snake-like patterns on the edges as a form of camouflage

Antennae and Proboscis

Atlas moths have unique antennae that help them sense the environment. As a result, they cannot feed and rely on energy stored from their caterpillar stage.

Comparison of the moth’s antennae and proboscis:

FeatureFunctionProsCons
AntennaeSensory organsHelps in finding a mate
ProboscisFeeding apparatusAbsent in Atlas moth, hence cannot feed adults

Their short adult life span, lasting only a few days to a week, is a result of the moth’s lack of feeding capabilities.

Yet, they still manage to reproduce and contribute to the survival of their species.

Documentation of another Morpho Butterfly and Atlas Moth pairing

Behavior and Survival Strategies

Feeding and Food Sources

Atlas moth caterpillars primarily feed on leaves, allowing them to grow rapidly.

They prefer specific types of vegetation like guava, citrus, and cinnamon trees. Here are some features of their feeding habits:

  • Consume large amounts of leaves for growth
  • Rapid development during the caterpillar stage

Adult Atlas moths, on the other hand, do not have working mouthparts and do not feed.

They rely on the energy stores they accumulate as caterpillars to survive their short adult lives.

Defense Mechanisms

Atlas moths have several defense mechanisms to evade predators:

  • Visual mimicry: Resemble snake heads to scare away potential predators
  • Color patterns: Camouflage with the environment

When threatened, Atlas moths utilize their wings’ distinct snake head patterns and resemble a larger, more intimidating creature.

Mating and Reproduction

Mating in Atlas moths involves specific male and female behaviors:

  • Males: Detect and follow female pheromone trails to find a potential mate
  • Females: Release pheromones to attract males for mating

Males and females exhibit differences in size, with females being slightly larger. Following successful mating, females lay eggs, and the cycle begins anew.

Atlas moths’ intriguing behaviors, survival strategies, and captivating appearance have led to them being named after the Titan god of Greek mythology and earning distinctive Cantonese names, showcasing just how unique and fascinating these creatures are.

Atlas Moth Larva

Human Interaction and Popularity

Atlas Moth as Pets

The Atlas moth, with its large size and striking colors, has caught the interest of collectors and entomology enthusiasts alike.

Some people choose to keep Atlas moths as pets, offering them the opportunity to observe their life cycle closely.

Their preferred food plants include the privet and some fruit trees, making it essential to provide a proper diet for them.

  • Pros:
    • Beautiful and unique appearance
    • Chance to observe their life cycle
  • Cons:
    • Short life span (adults only live for a few days to a week)
    • Specific dietary requirements

Conservation and Wildlife Advocacy

Due to their fascinating appearance, Atlas moths often have a role in raising awareness about insect conservation.

They can be found in museum’s butterfly houses and other wildlife exhibits, allowing the public to view and admire them in a controlled setting.

This contributes to a greater appreciation for these remarkable creatures.

Comparison Table: Atlas Moth vs. Other Moths

FeatureAtlas MothOther Moths
Wingspan9.8 inches (one of the largest)Smaller (varying sizes)
CocoonUsed to make silkNot used for silk production
Adult Life SpanFew days to a weekCan vary

Overall, the Atlas moth’s captivating appearance and role in silk production make it a popular subject for human interaction among enthusiasts and the general public alike.

As pet owners, collectors, or visitors to butterfly houses, we all have opportunities to appreciate the unique beauty of this fascinating creature.

Atlas Moth in Comparison

White Witch Moth

The Atlas Moth (Attacus atlas) is considered one of the largest moths in the world, with a wingspan of over 9.8 inches.

In comparison, the White Witch Moth (Thysania agrippina) holds the record for the largest wingspan among moth species, reaching up to 14 inches.

The White Witch Moth belongs to the Noctuidae family while the Atlas Moth is part of the Saturniidae family.

  • Atlas Moth features:
    • Rusty-brown color
    • Double white band
    • Large irregular white spots on wings
  • White Witch Moth features:
    • Pale gray color
    • Long slender wings
    • Distinctive zig-zag patterns on wings

Other Large Moth Species

Several other large moth species also belong to the Saturniidae family, such as the Luna Moth (Actias luna) with a wingspan of up to 4.5 inches, and the Hawk Moths or Sphinx Moths (Sphingidae), known for their long narrow wings and fast flight abilities.

Comparison Table:

SpeciesWingspanFamilyDistinctive Features
Atlas MothUp to 9.8 inchesSaturniidaeRusty-brown, white bands, white spots
White Witch MothUp to 14 inchesNoctuidaePale gray, long wings, zig-zag patterns
Luna MothUp to 4.5 inchesSaturniidaeLime-green, long tails
Hawk/Sphinx MothsVariesSphingidaeLong narrow wings, fast and aerobatic flight

Conclusion

Atlas moths are magnificent and majestic insects that have impressive size, color, and shape.

They are named after the Titan Atlas from Greek mythology or the atlas maps that their wing patterns resemble.

They have a wingspan of up to 10 inches. They are found in tropical and subtropical regions of Asia, where they live in forests and gardens.

They have a short adult life span of one to two weeks, during which they do not feed but only mate and lay eggs.

They are symbols of beauty, elegance, and longevity in some cultures. Atlas moths are amazing and awe-inspiring creatures that showcase the diversity and wonder of nature.

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about atlas moths. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Letter 1 – White Ringed Atlas Moth Caterpillar from South Africa

huge green cattepillar
Location: Hazyview, Mpumalanga, South Africa
January 19, 2011 8:22 am
I found this green catterpillar on a tree on our farm in Hazyview South Africa. I only found this one. It was about 10cm long and easily 1.5cm in diameter.

It had yellow spikes along its body with a few blue spikes on its head. It looks very similar (except for the colours) to like a catterpilar of some kind of emperor moth? do you have a clue?
Signature: Leonie

White Ringed Atlas Moth Caterpillar

Dear Leonie,
This was one of the quickest identifications we have ever made of an unknown species that was emailed to us. 

We immediately recognized your caterpillar as a member of the family Saturniidae, the Giant Silkmoths, and we tried the World’s Largest Saturniidae website that we have a membership to. 

Going to South African species, the first try struck the jackpot with Epiphora mythimnia, but since we cannot link to the World’s Largest Saturniidae website, we needed to find corroboration elsewhere. 

WLSS states:  “The White-ringed Atlas, Epiphora mythimnia (wingspan: 105-130mm), is one of the few Attacini in Southern Africa. It flies in South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe.” 

There is a photo of the caterpillar and the moth on the Lepidoptera Breeders Association website. The adult moth is pictured on the African Moths website and we have an example in our archives as well.

White Ringed Atlas Moth Caterpillar

Dear Daniel
Thank you very much for your quick response.  I have seen the moths around twice only.  They are beautiful you must admit!
God Bless
Leonie

Letter 2 – Atlas Moth in Singapore lays eggs

Atlas Moth?
Hi there,
Nearly stepped on this gorgeous monster as I got out of my parked car. Stumbled onto your site when I was trying to id it. Thought you might like a picture. Also wanted to ask if you think the little pink things are eggs?
Gen
from Singapore

Hi Gen,
We have gotten photos of Atlas Moths in captivity before, but this is the first wild specimen to come our way. Your are correct in speculating that the pink things are eggs.

Letter 3 – Atlas Moth takes a Cruise!!!

Atlas Moth found in Canada
Location:  Strait of Georgia, British Colombia Canada
August 13, 2010 1:39 am
The attached photos are of an Atlas Moth that landed on the bow of the Celebrity Mercury cruise ship on 8/7/2010. Thanks to your website I was able to identify it.

Even though these guys are native to SE Asia this one managed to get blown to Canada, Strait of Georgia, B.C. Sorry about the poor quality of the photos.

The moth landed in a crew only area of the ships bow and I had to use 380m telephoto and the blow it up some more.
Jim

Atlas Moth in Canada!!!

Hi Jim,
Despite the poor quality of your image, this does appear to be an Atlas Moth, and as you indicated, it is a Southeast Asian species, so it is considerably off course.  We would discount your theory that it flew or was blown to Canada. 

We can think of two very plausible explanations.  Since cruise ships travel around the world, it is not inconceivable that the caterpillar found its way on board and formed a cocoon, emerging thousands of miles from its native habitat. 

Atlas Moths are also raised in captivity, and people can purchase cocoons.  Perhaps one of the passengers wanted to create a sensation and released the moth onboard.

Letter 4 – Giant Atlas Moth Caterpillar

Dear What’s That Bug,
Please find attached a photo of a new resident we have at one of the properties that we manage in Phuket, Thailand. This chap and hundreds of his mates (and possibly relatives) have taken residence on one of the trees in the gardens.

Obviously we are keen to identify him (or her) and find ways to limit the affects of his insatiable appetite before we loose too much foliage. Thanking you for your consideration regarding this matter. With kind regards,
Mark.
PS : This particular individual is approx. 10 cms long and has a diameter of approx. 2.5 cms

Hi Mark,
We are nearly certain this is a Giant Atlas Moth Caterpillar, Attacus atlas. We found a wonderful website with images of the entire life cycle. The Giant Atlas Moth is one of the largest moths in the world, with the greatest wing area but not the greatest wing span.

Giant Atlas Moths are frequently featured in insect collections as well as in popular butterfly exhibits in zoos. Specimens for exhibits and collections are generally reared in captivity.

You should be able to capitalize on the mating flight of the adult moths when they emerge as a tourist attraction as a fair exchange for your foliage loss. Thanks for contributing to our site.

Dear Daniel,
Wow, thanks for the speedy reply – you guys really know your Lepidoptera (new word for me). Once you had correctly identified the species, I also did a little but of searching on the Internet to find out more about our guests.

Seems that the ones with the spikes / feathers are most likely male. For your information, on the tree in question (as yet unidentified) all the individuals I was able to observe were male. Is this normal ?

Or have external environmental factors conspired to limit their reproductive capacity in some way ? I only ask as I am informed that certain reptiles have the sex of their progeny dictated by nest temperature.

I also found out that on occasion, the Giant Atlas Moth can stay for years in its cocoon. Why is this so ? Does a good nights sleep, supersede the promise of unbridled mothly passion or does this wobbly, hungry little guest realize that once out of the cocoon, his days are numbered ?

On an un-related note, about six months ago this particular property woke up to find almost every woody surface covered in the casings of cicada’s. It was quite eerie and I felt like I had walked onto the set of some strange B-Movie about an invasion of small, but ferocious looking insects. Curious Place.

I wonder what’s next. Thanks again for your help and if we find any more unusual species we will definitely give you and your team a call. With kind regards,
Mark.
PS : For your information, we will not interfere with their life cycle. Although some of my landscaping staff are keen to throw furidan at the problem. Yes, furidan is readily available here and sold over the counter for next to nothing – some peanuts or a small bag of sea shells. Hopefully none of the Villa or Apartment owners will notice or comment on the extra sunshine coming through the canopy or the strange brown balls underfoot.

Hi Mark,
We are not entirely convinced that only the male caterpillars have spikes. We venture that nothing short of DNA analysis can correctly determine the sex of caterpillars.

Regarding staying in the pupa stage for several years, we believe there are two possible explanations. If not all moths emerge from the pupa in the same season, the perpetuation of the species is more likely.

Also, some species await optimum conditions of temperature and humidity to emerge to better ensure a food source for the young caterpillars, though in tropical climates, this seems less likely a factor. The bottom line is that we are just not sure.

Letter 5 – Mating Papilio anchisiades and Mating Atlas Moths in the Butterfly Garden

Butterfly Porn
Hi bugfolks,
I recently visited a butterfly garden, and was shocked by the decidedly R-rated display of wantonness. Under every leaf, exhibitionist butterflies and moths were getting it on…

It was possibly the best date of all times. Here are a few of my favorite voyeur shots for your Bug Love section, hope you enjoy them as much as I enjoy your site!
Valerie

Hi Valerie,
Thank you for your fabulous letter and lascivious images. We are especially intrigued with your Atlas Moth orgy.

The exhibit butterflies are all hatched in the garden. For the Atlas moths, the cocoons are glued to ropes dangling from the ceiling in a dark little cave near a waterfall.

The moths seem to like to cluster in that area, and many were pairing off right on top of their former husks.
Valerie

Authors

    by
  • Bugman

    Bugman aka Daniel Marlos has been identifying bugs since 1999. whatsthatbug.com is his passion project and it has helped millions of readers identify the bug that has been bugging them for over two decades. You can reach out to him through our Contact Page.

  • Piyushi Dhir

    Piyushi is a nature lover, blogger and traveler at heart. She lives in beautiful Canada with her family. Piyushi is an animal lover and loves to write about all creatures.

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