The Atlas Moth Chronicles – Episode 3

posted in: Butterflies and Moths, Fauna | 7

Episode 3: The 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 Chronicles.

Episode 2 describes the development of the caterpillars ending in eclosion. However, there was one case that did not end right. The pupating caterpillar somehow ended on the tabletop and began to lay down its silk. Not happy with this, I moved it to a branch with larger leaves (Bridellia sp.) than the original Limau Purut (Citrus hystrix). It continued to lay silk on a leaf for the next 48 hours (above). Because of the larger leaf size, the caterpillar wasted its silk, leaving none to cover itself. So it ended up as a “naked” pupa – minus its cocoon.

On the 12th day the caterpillar underwent a final moult, leaving a crumpled mass of old skin on the leaf. From an unattractive, dried looking caterpillar (above), it turned into a colourful pupa showing the various parts of the future moth (below).

Notice the abdominal segments, folded wings, antennae, mouthparts and head (below). The pupa wriggled whenever disturbed.

The next major change would be eclosion, where the emerging moth leaves its skin behind and crawls out of the silken case. In this particular case I would be able to follow the process unobstructed. Unfortunately I missed the crucial moment. The image below shows a normal cocoon partially dissected to show the empty pupal case inside and the moulted skin after eclosion (below).

Eclosion for this naked pupa occurred at 29 days. I only realised what happened when I found a ragged moth with crumpled wings in the dish it was in. Apparently the emerging moth failed to crawl over the side of the dish and so its wings failed to expand. When I later experimented with removing the top covering of the pupa case to observe the development inside, I found the emerging moth at the edge of my computer table hanging onto a wire until its wings expanded. I had left it on a flat surface but again missed the crucial moment. It was a female and it successfully mated the following day.

The moth with the crumpled wings was left hanging from the edge of a leaf (above). It attracted three to five male moths every night for the next seven nights. However, not a single male copulated with this strange looking female but remained around till nightfall. Was it possible that the female failed to give the necessary courtship signals? Or was it because the males failed to recognise her as a female as her wings were not expanded? In the absence of copulation, she laid about a hundred unfertilised eggs, none of which subsequently hatched

In all instances of eclosion the emerging moth remained clinging to the pupa case until nightfall. When it was a male moth, verified by its pair of wide antennae (above), it would fly off sometime during the night, apparently to seek out newly emerged females. The wider and more elaborate antennae are presumed to enable it to better detect the pheromone discharged by females some distance away.

However, an emerging female, with narrower antennae (above), always remained attached to the pupa case to await a visiting male or males (below).

Males arrived during the early morning. The first to arrive immediately attached itself to the female (below).

A second male would sometime also cling on to the female (below).

Late comers simply waited nearby, to fly off the following night. Where there were two males per female, the tip of the abdomen of the first male would make connections with that of the female, thus excluding the second male (below). The pair remained thus for up to 11-20 hours after which they disconnect but remained attached. Then they flew off, the male probably to seek out another female and the female to lay her eggs on a host plant.

To collect the eggs, it would be necessary to cage the pair before they disengage (below). Egg laying went on for a few days under captivity, giving a total of up to 200-250 eggs per female.

The female remained alive for only a few days more. A few of the males that arrived to mate with the newly emerged females failed to survive the next day, dying in the garden, their bodies disintegrating and became food for ants (below). They probably had visited other females previously before arriving.

It was noted with the second batch of 18 pupae that the first wave of emerging moths were males. Females generally emerged later. The number of days from start of pupation to eclosure was 22-23 days for males and 23-25 days for females. This would mean that caterpillars that would develop into male moths had a shorter pupal stage than potential females or they started to pupate a few days earlier. Having males eclose earlier can be a mechanism to discourage inbreeding. The males would have long gone before the females emerge. There is also the possibility of caterpillars “which eventually turn into adult females to pass through one instar more than those which develop into males,” as suggested by Henry Barlow. But I failed to detect this in my caterpillars.

Reference:
Barlow, H.S., 1982. An introduction to the moths of South East Asia, Malayan Nature Society, Kuala Lumpur

Note: The top image by Khew Sin Khoon, all others by YC Wee.

This post first appeared on 15th September 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.

7 Responses

  1. Very interesting! So can we conclude that the adults’ sole purpose is to mate? They don’t remain alive for long after they emerge as adults, and they also do not eat, am I right?

  2. The Atlas Moths live for a few days only, not eating at all. Their sole purpose is to propagate the species.

  3. Thanks for the clarification! This was a really interesting series. I’d like to also know how common atlas moths are in Singapore these days – are their numbers around the same or do they seem to be declining/increasing? The last time I saw one was when I was a child, back in the ’80s.

    • I really have no idea. However, Lee Chiu San believes that it is getting rare nowadays (see comment in part 1).

  4. Adrian Chan

    Extremely large lepidopterans are usually rare. The South American White Witch moth (Thysannia agrippana) and the Queen Alexandra’s birdwing butterfly are examples.
    The Atlas moth appears to be the only exception.

  5. […] By around 1500 hours a male Oleander Hawkmoth was seen perching on the roof of the porch where the female was (above). Obviously the hawkmoth that eclosed earlier was a female and the one on the roof was a male. This was based our Atlas Moth (Attacus atlas) experience. […]

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