Home – Southeast Asia
Habitat – tropical forests and grasslands
Niche – large flying insect
Favorite Food – plant leaves in larval form
Wingspan – up to 10 inches
Status – Vulnerable to extinction
Threats – habitat destruction, specimen collection
In the forests of southern of Southern Asia there lives an insect so large that it defies belief. Brilliantly colored with wings big enough to cover your laptop screen, the atlas moth is truly a sight to behold against the lush green backdrop of its tropical habitat.
Atlas moths belong to the largest family of moths, called saturniid moths or emperor moths. About 800 species make up this family, and among them are the biggest moths on planet earth. The atlas moth is near the top of the list, with adult female wingspans measuring as much as 10 inches across, attached to a body the size of a human thumb. Females are larger than males, but lack the broad, feathery antennae.
Like all butterflies and moths, atlas moths begin their life cycle as larvae called caterpillars hatched from eggs. These caterpillars voraciously consume as much plant material as possible in preparation for their next stage of life. Gobbling a variety of plant leaves, they must store a certain amount of energy before they spin hairy cocoons about their bodies. Within the cocoon, they are protected from many predators and begin the process that turns them into the adult, winged moth form. Surprisingly, adult atlas moths do not eat. They must consume enough food in caterpillar form to both molt into their adult form and sustain the flight of a giant adult insect. Adult lives are spent searching for mates and avoiding predators, working on a tight timeline. Since they can’t eat, they need to accomplish their life goals without the ability to buy more time before death.
Despite their size, atlas moths do not possess much in the way of a defensive arsenal. However, like other moths, they can use their bright, spotted coloration to confuse predators. If an atlas moth is disturbed, it will thrust its wings forward, flashing its bright spots. Often, the sight of what appears to be a much larger, different animal is enough to startle a predator long enough to allow the moth to fly away.
Atlas moths are protected in some regions of Asia due to threats posed by habitat destruction and collection. Since they are so huge and spectacularly colored, they are a favorite specimen to mount on display. Like many other animals living in the tropical rainforests of Asia, the atlas moth will only survive if we’re committed to letting it do so.