The Atlas Moth Chronicle – Episode 1

posted in: Butterflies and Moths, Fauna | 11

Atlas Moth: 1. The arrival of the moths

The first time the Atlas Moth (Attacus atlas) got my attention was when about two dozens individuals were seen attached to pupal cases on my Limau Purut (Citrus hystrix) tree (above). I failed to notice the caterpillars when they were munching on the leaves. I failed to notice the pupae when they developed on the tree. Only when the large moths emerged from the pupa cases and hung out did I finally take notice.

Most of the moths were in pairs, each pair clinging together from a pupal case (above). I failed to question the significance of this. I was simply awed by the presence of these large moths. Seeing the silky cases, I was puzzled as to how these large moths managed to get out of the cases. The cases remained intact except of a small opening at one end (below) but how would it be possible for such a large moth to crawl out of such a small opening? I asked around but failed to get a satisfactory answer. And every year since then, I kept watch on the tree hoping for the return of the caterpillars so that I could get an answer to the puzzle. But the tree was never infested with these caterpillars ever since.

My next encounter with the Atlas moth was seven years later. And that encounter saw me breeding two generations of caterpillars before I finally got answers to my questions.

Discarded dried leaf with a cocoon

In December 2011 I picked up a dried Blue Mahang (Macaranga heyeni) leaf on the ground below the tree in my garden. There was a cocoon attached to it (above). Curious as to what it was and hoping to keep it as a specimen, I left it on a bench in my porch. Imagine my surprise when a few mornings later I found a pair of large Atlas Moths clinging to the spout of a nearby upturned funnel (below).

The body of one was larger than that of the other and the tips of their abdomens were in contact (below).

The size difference of their wings was only slight, with the tips of the forewings narrowing to a point, each with an eyespot (below).

The antennae of the pair were also different.

The smaller moth had wider antennae (above, background) while the larger one narrower (below, foreground). I was to find out later that the female moth is larger and has narrower antennae. The male moth on the other hand is smaller but with wider antennae to enable it to detect the pheromone released by the females from some distance away.

Fascinated, I photographed the pair, moving the funnel around for better positions. The moths remained attached all the time, never attempting to fly off.

The pair was then placed inside a cage where they remained attached together until the next morning when they disengaged. On the funnel were clumps of small oval eggs (above), each 2.5 mm long and 2 mm wide, numbering about 250. The moths were then released and the eggs transferred on to the leaves of a Limau Purut twig taken from my garden. By then I was obviously aware that this is one of the host plants of the caterpillars.

For the next six months I was totally engaged in breeding these caterpillars that was to eventually lead to the answers of my questions. I was to realise that the discarded cocoon actually had a live caterpillar in its final stage of metamorphosis inside. And that the moth that emerged was actually a female. The female moth somehow crawled on to the spout of the upturned funnel where it spread its wings to dry and during the night attracted a male that flew in to copulate with it. However, the puzzle as to how the female moth emerged from the pupil case was to elude me until very much later when I finally managed to document the process after numerous failed attempts to be at the right place at the right time.

To be continued…

A mating pair of Atlas Moths with the female still clinging onto her pupa – shot at Pulau Ubin by Khew Sin Khoon.

Note: Photos by SK Khew (first and last) and YC Wee (the rest).

This post first appeared on 4th August 2012 in Butterflies of Singapore through the courtesy of Khew Sin Khoon, the founder of the site. At that time BESG’s focus was on birds. However in May 2013 we expanded our coverage beyond birds in an effort to encourage bird enthusiasts to look at nature in general. In view of this, I have decided to repost the Atlas Moth story in this website for archival purposes – YC Wee.

11 Responses

  1. Lee Chiu San

    So wonderful to see an article about Atlas Moths. Looking forward very much to reading what else our Webmaster has to say. These moths were relatively common when our noted Webmaster and I were teenagers, but have become quite rare of late. I have not seen one in Singapore for decades. Which is disappointing, because, unlike the caterpillars of other butterflies and moths which tend to feed on only a few host plants, Atlas Moth caterpillars will feed on a variety of leaves. I have personally found them on soursop and guava, besides the Limau Purut recorded in this article. And yes, they tend to copulate almost immediately after leaving their cocoons. They have their priorities….

  2. If you happen to have a single female moth, you will find many males lining up hoping to get their turn… but sorry, no way will the first successful male give way to the others. Have not seen a single Atlas Moth since then… but they are around somewhere.

  3. Here’s my own story with Atlas moths several years ago. It looks like they have several hosts plants….from the torch ginger, to the mahogany and now limau purut.

    That infestation actually botak two large mahogany trees along loyang ave. I grey up there and when I saw two botak trees with what looked like bats hanging on it made me come back for a closer look.

    It was full of caterpillars.

    http://jklmn2007.blogspot.sg/search?q=atlas

  4. Has the 2nd part of this article been posted yet? Eager to read on.

  5. […] unexpected arrival of a pair of Atlas Moths (Attacus atlas) at my porch left me with about 250 eggs. These eggs, usually pinkish in colour, were transferred to […]

  6. […] Circle of Life The meticulous documentation of the life cycle of the Atlas Moth (Attacus atlas) in Episodes 1 and Episode 2 return to complete the story in this final episode of the Atlas Moth […]

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