It’s with good reason that the Atlas moth, or Attacus atlas, claims the title of the world’s biggest moth. Its total wing surface area can measure a whopping great 400 centimetres square (62 square inches) and greater. Rather more awe-inspiring than the pocket-sized pests that plague our lampshades in the summer!
Despite its giant proportions, there is actually another moth that has a larger wingspan than the Atlas: known as the White Witch, this pretender to the throne has a wingspan of up to 11 inches, as compared with the Atlas’s 10-inch span. Yet the White Witch does not measure up in terms of total wing surface area, meaning the Atlas can rest on its laurels as king of the moths.
There is some disagreement over whether the Atlas moth is named after the famous, earth-supporting Titan from Greek mythology, or for the fact that its wing patterns look like maps. In Cantonese, the Atlas moth is known as the “Snake’s head moth,” because of the resemblance (shown wonderfully in this picture) of the hooked upper parts of its wings to the beady-eyed head of a serpent – a device, perhaps, to warn off would-be predators!
Atlas moths are found in the tropical and subtropical forests of Southeast Asia and, along with many of the world’s most intriguing species, across the Malay Archipelago.
As you can see, the Atlas moth is light brown to maroon in its base color but has translucent ‘eyes’, or portals, on its wings. No one knows the purpose of these striking windows but the best guess is that they help the moth avoid predators, presumably by helping it camouflage itself better against its background.
As with many other insect species, the female Atlas moth is significantly bigger and heavier than the male – though neither are the steadiest of flyers. The males also have more tapered wings, as well as thick, feathery antennae.
At the caterpillar stage, Atlas moths will feed insatiably on anything from cinnamon and lime to guava and citrus fruits. Sounds delicious! We’ll also soon see why they eat so voraciously.
Once they have broken out of their chrysalises, female Atlas moths stay close to the spot where they emerged rather than moving around to any great extent. As mates, they are quite passive, opting to stay put and attract males by emitting ‘come hither’ chemicals from a gland at the tip of their abdomens. The males use their bushy antennae to navigate themselves toward the female, sometimes picking up on her alluring scent from a few kilometres downwind.
Apart from its mammoth proportions, the most unusual thing about the Atlas moth is that – in common with most moths – it doesn’t eat at all during its life. In fact, adult Atlas moths don’t even have proper mouths, at least not ones that enable them to feed.
Because the Atlas moth only lives for one to two weeks, it is up to the caterpillar to build up enough fat reserves for it to survive its all-too-brief adult life. It seems strangely unfair that such imposing and beautiful creatures should have such short lives. Oh well, at least they stick around longer than the one-day mayfly!
While it may seem as though the Atlas moth’s only purpose is to breed and then die, humans have come up with a couple more uses for the critter. In Northern India, for example, the moth’s cocoons – which are made from broken strands of silk – are used to make a brown, durable, woolly fabric called fagara. Don’t go looking for fagara in the neighborhood store, however, as it is produced non-commercially.