A Giant Of The Night Sky – Atlas Moth

Two things one needs to know before reading further: Moths are usually nocturnal insects – ‘fly-by-night’ in a different sense, and two, Atlas was condemned by the Greek God Zeus to hold the sky upon his shoulders for all eternity!

One can actually picture the largest moth in South East Asia holding up our skies with its big, beautiful wings! With a wingspan of 12 inches, Atticus Atlas is seen in the forests of the Western Ghats and North East India as the tropical rainforest environment is just perfect for this giant of the night sky.

I fascinate many with my size, while I eclipse the world with my wings. Photo credit : Sandeep Varma
I’m not scary, I’m just big! ; Photo courtesy: Maria George

The life and times of Atticus Atlas

The caterpillar of this species is a voracious eater and grows nearly five inches long; that’s big for a caterpillar! The species spends most of its life as a caterpillar during which there is only one goal – eat!    I don’t blame them for eating so much because they eat for a reason! Once the Atlas moth caterpillars transform into winged giants, they lose their mouth. The largest moth can’t eat during this last phase of life and is totally dependent on food digested and stored during its caterpillar phase. Imagine having to give up food after your eighteenth birthday!

After living in its cocoon for almost a month, the Atticus is ready to emerge. Sadly, this beautiful phase of life will last only 7 to 8 days and there is one very important thing to do during this time….find a suitable partner. Females are usually larger than males and don’t move too far from their cocoons. They ensure they find a high point with the wind against them. This helps them spread their pheromones through the jungle making it easier to draw males closer.

All is not well, but there is hope!

This big moth has a lot to worry about when it comes to predators. Despite an impressive wing span, it is not a very good flier but has an interesting trick up its sleeve. The giant moth drops to the ground when threatened and waves its wings mimicking a cobra sway. This may be the reason why the Atticus is also called the ‘snake head’ in some SE Asian countries.

We humans have not spared this species. We have realized that we can get silk- lots of it, from a large Atlas moth cocoon. This silk is called Fagara and the cocoon itself is harvested in plenty and made into small purses that are quite sought after in SE Asia. India on the other hand, does not encourage the commercial use of this silk or cocoons. Therefore, India is a safe place for this amazing species to thrive and flourish.

Edited by Dominic D’Cruz