Giant Leopard Moth: Essential Facts and Fascinating Insights

The giant leopard moth, a strikingly beautiful creature, is known for its white body adorned with black spots and iridescent blue hints. One of the largest moths in North America, this insect is a sight to behold with a wingspan ranging from 5.7 to 9.1 cm (approximately 2.25 to 3.6 inches) 1. These moths are not only unique in appearance but also remarkable in their life cycle, characterized by several transformative stages.

Giant leopard moths begin their lives as fuzzy black caterpillars that display a red or orange underlying body color2. As they mature and transition into the pupal stage, these caterpillars shed their exoskeleton, eventually emerging as stunning adult moths. In this article, we will delve into the fascinating world of the giant leopard moth, exploring its life cycle, habitat, and noteworthy aspects of its behavior.

Giant Leopard Moth Basics

Scientific Classification

The giant leopard moth (scientific name: Hypercompe scribonia) belongs to the family Erebidae and subfamily Arctiinae.

Physical Appearance

  • Large white moth
  • Black spots on forewings
  • Hollow white centers in spots
  • Iridescent blue markings sometimes present
  • Hindwing has black shading
  • Black spots on outer tips of hindwings

Adults have a wingspan of approximately 2.25 to 3.6 inches.

Distribution and Habitat

Giant leopard moths are found across North America. They inhabit:

  • Forests
  • Fields
  • Gardens
  • Suburban areas

There’s no known distinction between subspecies, and they have similar orange markings regardless of location.

Life Cycle and Behavior

Eggs

Giant leopard moth eggs are small and typically laid on their host plants. The moths preferentially deposit their eggs on the undersides of leaves, providing some protection from predators (University of Florida).

Caterpillars

Giant leopard moth caterpillars are distinct, featuring:

  • Fuzzy black appearance
  • Red to orange underlying body color
  • Length up to 2 inches (Texas A&M University)

These caterpillars exhibit a “food-mixing” behavior, meaning they feed on a variety of plant species instead of being picky eaters (University of Florida). During winter, nearly full-grown caterpillars often hibernate and resume development in the spring.

Pupa

After completing the caterpillar stage, the giant leopard moth undergoes pupation. The pupa is formed within a cocoon, consisting of the caterpillar’s last instar exuviae or shed exoskeleton (University of Florida).

Adult Moth

Adult giant leopard moths have a striking appearance:

  • White wings with black spots
  • Wingspan of 2.25-3.6 inches
  • Iridescent blue thorax spots in some individuals (University of Florida)

These moths are nocturnal and exhibit no noticeable sexual dimorphism. They have a single brood in the North and two or more broods in the South (University of Florida).

North South
Single brood per year Two or more broods/year

Diet and Host Plants

Caterpillar Food Plants

The giant leopard moth caterpillars are known to feed on a variety of plants. Some preferred host plants include:

  • Oak
  • Maple
  • Apple

Additionally, they may feed on other deciduous plants such as cherry, basswood, ash, white elm, crabapple, and blueberry1. These caterpillars may also “balloon” onto nearby plants like roses2.

Adult Moth Food Sources

Giant leopard moths, in their adult stage, primarily feed on nectar from flowers3. Their diet consists of:

  • Flower nectar
  • Occasional tree sap
Caterpillar Food Plants Adult Moth Food Sources
Oak Flower nectar
Maple Tree sap
Apple
Cherry
Basswood
Ash
White elm
Crabapple
Blueberry

Predators and Defense Mechanisms

Natural Predators

The giant leopard moth, also known as Hypercompe scribonia, belongs to the Erebidae family. As a part of the circle of life, this moth faces predation from various species.

  • Birds: Aerial predators such as birds are common enemies.
  • Small mammals: Rodents and other small mammals often feed on moth larvae.
  • Insects: Larger insects may prey on moth eggs or larvae.

Defense Strategies

The giant woolly bear, which is the caterpillar stage of the giant leopard moth, employs various defense mechanisms to protect itself from predators.

Urticant setae: These are bristly hairs that cover the caterpillar’s body. They can be irritating to potential predators.

  • Function: The urticant setae can cause discomfort and deter predators from eating the woolly bear.

Bright colors: Red spiracles and intersegmental areas on the black caterpillar body serve as a warning signal.

  • Function: Red and black colors on the caterpillar indicate that it may not be a suitable meal for predators, as these colors are often associated with toxicity or unpalatability.

Violets: Woolly bears are known to feed on violets and other low-growing plants. The presence of violets could discourage predators as it provides the caterpillar with a natural hiding place.

  • Function: Violets and other low-growing plants help the caterpillar camouflage and escape the attention of potential predators.
Defense Strategies Purpose Form
Urticant setae Deter predators Bristly hairs on the caterpillar
Bright colors Warning signal Red spiracles and intersegmental areas
Violets Camouflage and hiding Presence of low-growing plants

Interesting Facts and Human Interaction

Involvement in Literature and Science

The Giant Leopard Moth belongs to the Erebidae family, which includes tiger moths and woolly bear caterpillars. Known for their unique appearance and vast presence throughout North America, these moths capture the attention of both scientists and writers alike. They tend to feature in literature, especially children’s stories, due to their easily recognizable markings and fascinating behaviors.

Pet and Observation Tips

Appearance and Features

  • Wingspan: 5.7-9.1 cm (approx. 2.25-3.6 in.)
  • Colors: White wings with black spots, iridescent blue or black spots on the abdomen
  • Hindwing: Shaded with black inner edge, black spots near the outer tip
  • Males and females have similar appearances

If you’re interested in observing giant leopard moths in their natural habitat or even as pets, follow these recommendations:

  • Look for them during the night as these moths, like most, are nocturnal creatures
  • Place tall grass, twigs, and decay in a container for hiding spots, like a jar with small holes for air – but avoid keeping them for extended periods
  • You can also provide sunflowers, cherries, and willows for caterpillars during larval stages
  • Check your backyard or balcony for signs of these moths, as they tend to fly close to human dwellings

Be aware that giant leopard moths employ disruptive coloration to deter predators like bats and spiders. When threatened, they also release a yellow fluid, which is harmless to humans.

Attribute Giant Leopard Moth Eyed Tiger Moth
Wingspan 5.7-9.1 cm (approx. 2.25-3.6 in.) Slightly smaller, around 4-6 cm
Coloration White with black spots, blue or black spots on abdomen White with black spots and large “eye” markings
Active Time Night (nocturnal) Night (nocturnal)
Habitat Gardens, backyards, and woodland environments Commonly found in grassy areas near forests

Keep in mind that although these moths display interesting behaviors and beautiful markings, observing them should always be done responsibly, respecting their natural habits and needs.

Footnotes

  1. Winter Moth Identification & Management 2

  2. Giant Leopard Moth 2

  3. Giant woolly bear, great leopard moth – Hypercompe scribonia

Reader Emails

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

Letter 1 – Leopard Lacewing Caterpillars from Malaysia Butterfly Farm

 

Subject: Caterpillar found in Penang Butterfly Farm
Location: Penang, Malaysia
February 6, 2016 4:20 am
Hello, I took this picture in 2011 at Penang Butterfly Farm, Malaysia, early February. I would be ever so grateful if you could identify it. I’ve been searching online and can’t find one that looks like it.
Kind regards,
Signature: Aeve Pomeroy

Caterpillars
Leopard Lacewing Caterpillars

Dear Aeve,
We found your species of caterpillar, also taken at the Penang Butterfly Farm, pictured on the Tennyson Lee blog, but alas, it is not identified.  Onewayticketmsia also has an unidentified image from the Penang Butterfly Farm.  We eventually found the entire life cycle of the Leopard Lacewing,
Cethosia cyane, pictured on the Butterflies of Singapore site, and we are satisfied that is a correct identification.  According to the site:  “The local host plant adopted by Leopard Lacewing as it spread quickly across the island is Passiflora foetida, a member of the Passifloraceae family commonly found in wastelands. In captive setting, the Leopard Lacewing has also been breed succesfully on another plant in the same family, Adenia macrophylla var. singaporeana, a plant which only occurs naturally within the catchment reserves. This might account for the sightings of Leopard Lacewing in some areas of the nature reserves.  The caterpillars of the Leopard Lacwing feed on the leaves, young shoots and outer surface of older stems of the host plant. The Leopard Lacewing caterpillars are gregarious throughout all five instars, often eating (leaves and stems), resting and moulting together in groups.”  According to Butterfly Circle:  “the larvae and adult butterflies display a distinct warning coloration that advertises their unpalatable nature to potential predators. When handled, they often exude a noxious odor generated from the ingested passion vine organic compounds.”

Dear Daniel,
That’s wonderful you have found it! Thank you so much for taking time to do this, and for the information given.
You are welcome to keep the photo and use freely if it is useful for your website, or anything else. I also have a photo of the adult Leopard Lacewing if that might be useful too.
Have a great weekend,
Aeve

 

Letter 2 – Giant Leopard Moth

 

big white and grey moth in central texas
hi there!
this huge moth wandered into our kitchen this weekend, so we moved it back outside (using our shopping list) where it was very patient and posed for pictures. we thought, from looking at your site, that it might be Polygrammate hebraeicum (the Hebrew) or maybe Ecpantheria deflorata, but in each case when we looked at the pictures close up, the markings were all wrong. any idea who came to visit us?
jeff & rebecca & rhys

Hi Jeff, Rebecca, and Rhys,
This is a Giant Leopard Moth, Ecpantheria scribonia, which we located on BugGuide. This moth has some variation in its markings. Here is a Texas Site with more information. It seems several sites are using the scientific name Hypercompe scribonia.

Letter 3 – Giant Leopard Moth

 

What type of moth is this? Found in Texas
August 25, 2009
I found this moth clinging to the inside of my door. I put it gently outside, later it found its way back into the house. I have never seen anything like it. It did not seem to want to fly.
Yvonne , Jeremy and Isla
Texas

Giant Leopard Moth
Giant Leopard Moth

Hi Yvonne, Jeremy and Isla,
This is a Giant Leopard Moth or Eyed Tiger Moth, Hypercompe scribonia.  Many Tiger Moths do not eat as adults and they are attracted to lights.  Though we don’t get Eyed Tiger Moths at our Los Angeles offices, we do get a relative known as the Painted Arachnis.  Each year they are attracted to the porch lights and lay eggs on the wooden siding.  The furry caterpillars, known as Woolly Bears, hatch and disperse where they are general feeders.  According to BugGuide, Giant Leopard Moth “larvae feed on a great variety of broad-leaved plants, including banana, cabbage, cherry, dandelion, maple, orange, sunflower, violet, willow.

Letter 4 – Giant Leopard Moth

 

Subject: Beautiful White Moth
Location: Coryell County, Texas
October 2, 2013 9:34 pm
Is this a Giant Leopard Moth?
I saw it quite by accident as the dogs and I were leaving our porch-sitting session tonight. It climbed from the lighted window up to the eaves, where it was stopped by the fascia board, and it walked back and forth, left, right, left, until I placed a stationary dead branch in front of it. Ugh, in the dark I didn’t notice that the branch was so sharp, but the moth was careful as it climbed aboard.
After a short photo session, I wedged the branch into a live tree, and the moth has since either climbed or flown away.
The leg joints, part of its face, and its antennae shone blue in the flash.
Here is a Bug Guide link, and I saw some lovely photos on your website. This one looks a little different from the moths I saw on the guides, so I’m not certain if it’s a Giant Leopard or not.
What a beauty!
Thank you for all of your help!

Signature: Ellen
Part 2: Here is the Bug Guide link to what might be a Giant Leopard Moth:
http://bugguide.net/node/view/493
I’ve included a few of the flash photos that show a hint of the Blue on Black (ref: awesome Kenny Wayne Shepherd song 😉
Thank you!
Signature: Ellen

Giant Leopard Moth (shot with flash)
Giant Leopard Moth (shot with flash)

Hi Ellen,
Your are correct that this is a Giant Leopard Moth.  We are using one of the flash photo to illustrate this posting.

Letter 5 – Giant Leopard Moth

 

Subject: Black and Whit Moth?
Location: Eastern PA (suburbs of Philadelphia)
July 8, 2014 6:32 pm
We saw this cool moth on the brick sidewalk outside of the Exton, PA Barnes and Noble. I love it’s black and white stripey legs. It reminded my kids of a Dalmatian dog. It was seen in early Spring.
Signature: Laura Toner

Giant Leopard Moth
Giant Leopard Moth

Hi Laura,
This beautiful and distinctive Tiger Moth is commonly called a Giant Leopard Moth or an Eyed Tiger Moth.

Thank you so much! I thought it looked like it had scary big eyes. Very interesting and beautiful. Happy summer! :)Laura Toner

Letter 6 – Giant Leopard Moth

 

Subject: black and white bug
Location: Louisiana
May 13, 2015 7:56 pm
I saw this bug outside of my house i thought it was a really awesome moth but i got closer and now i dont know what it is. It is really awesome looking.
Signature: -Mir

Giant Leopard Moth
Giant Leopard Moth

Dear Mir,
You encountered and Eyed Tiger Moth or Giant Leopard Moth,
Hypercompe scribonia.

Letter 7 – Leopard Lacewing Caterpillar from Singapore

 

Subject:  Bugman Help
Location:  Singapore
January 1, 2014
Hello Daniel!
Appreciate your help to identify this beautiful caterpillar found in the hot and humid Singapore!
Thank you!
With blessings,
Signature:  Jaslin

Unknown Caterpillar
Leopard Lacewing Caterpillar

Dear Jaslin,
We have not been able to identify your caterpillar yet.  We have created a posting and perhaps one of our readers will be able to assist in the identification.

Unknown Caterpillar
Leopard Lacewing Caterpillar

Update:  January 3, 2014
Thanks to a comment from Richard Stickney, we are able to provide a link to the caterpillar of the Leopard Lacewing,
Cethosia cyane, on the Butterflies of Singapore site where it states:  “This migrant species was recently discovered in Singapore in 2005. Since then, it has established a firm foothold and can be considered a common species in Singapore. Across the island, Leopard Lacewing can be found flying in many wastelands where its host plant, Passiflora foetida, grows in relative abundance. The adults have the habit of visiting flowers for nectar and are very fast on the wings.” 

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.

9 thoughts on “Giant Leopard Moth: Essential Facts and Fascinating Insights”

  1. I found a large, black wooly worm-like caterpillar on my driveway a couple of weeks ago.
    I fed it, and it pupated for me in a glass jar. The moth just emerged, it is a giant leopard moth, just like the picture! So beautiful!

    Josiah from PA

    Reply
  2. I found a large, black wooly worm-like caterpillar on my driveway a couple of weeks ago.
    I fed it, and it pupated for me in a glass jar. The moth just emerged, it is a giant leopard moth, just like the picture! So beautiful!

    Josiah from PA

    Reply
  3. We found this bug outside a Lugnuts Stadium and it was very cool…..it had a lot of people interested, it got me the most because I was like “um…did we just discover like a rare bug?” -lexi,haley- Butt booty -amy-

    Reply
  4. i found a leopard ” wooly ” caterpillar under a heuchera plant in october. I live in yardley pa. I kept him in a small terrarium., fed him various leaves found around my yard, and today ( 2/11/18 ) he emerged. unfortunately., it’s too cold to release him. i wish he could finish his life cycle but glad i got to see him. he’s really gorgeous.

    Reply
  5. I found a wooly bear (Giant Leopard moth) caterpillar in the beginning of the spring and placed it in a butterfly cage with lots of dandelions, it made a cocoon and hatched 3 weeks later. After hatching I brought it outside where it took a very long time to fly away. It is nocturnal so I didnt see him/her fly away but stayed for 2 hours watching it crawl around the netting of the butterfly cage. At one point it began rapidly moving its wings like a motor and made a cool vibration noise. I miss it now!! It was gone by morning, I didnt know if it was a boy or girl and I would like to know how long it will live . I so want to see him or her again flying by!

    Reply

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