5 facts about the incredible (and huge) Atlas moth

April 26, 2016, 6 a.m.
Atlas moth
Photo: Andreas Weitzmann/Shutterstock

1. The Atlas moth, Attacus atlas, is found in Southeast Asia and is one of the largest moth species in the world. It has a wingspan of over 11 inches, and a total surface area of as much as 62 square inches. Only the Hercules moth beats the Atlas moth in total wing surface area. In fact, the Hercules moth beats out every insect for largest wing surface area with an impressive 118 square inches.

The Atlas moth also ties with the largest of the butterfly species, the endangered Queen Alexandra's Birdwing, the females of which have a wingspan of up to 11 inches. For a sense of scale, here's an Atlas moth resting on a person's hand:

Atlas moth in hand That's quite an impressive moth you have there. (Photo: nednapa/Shutterstock)

2. Atlas moth adults don't eat. Ever. In fact, they don't even have mouths. Though that may sound extraordinary, it's fairly common in moths. Once the Atlas moth emerges from the cocoon as an adult, its sole purpose is to fly around and find a mate. This only takes about two weeks, and they rely on stores of energy built up as caterpillars to get them through this period. Once they breed, and the females lay eggs, they die.

3. The wing tips of the Atlas moth look just like snake heads. While it could be coincidental, it's thought that perhaps this is a strategy for scaring off potential predators.

4. The caterpillars of the species are also impressive in their defense strategies. According to Encyclopedia of Life, "The large, striking Atlas Moth larvae (caterpillars) are well defended. They are able to spray a strong-smelling defensive secretion that apparently is used against vertebrate and ant predators. This can be sprayed up to 50 cm either as a droplet or fine stream."

5. Once they reach about 4.5 inches in size, Atlas moth caterpillars form silken cocoons. The pupal stage lasts about four weeks, after which the adult breaks out of the cocoon. The cocoon is so large and made of such sturdy silk that in Taiwan they are sometimes used as purses.

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