How the atlas moth imitates snakes to ward off threats

Attacus atlas. Image credit: Creative Commons

How the atlas moth imitates snakes to ward off threats

Each Wednesday, One Earth’s “Species of the Week” series highlights a relatively unknown and fascinating species to showcase the beauty, diversity, and remarkable characteristics of our shared planet Earth.

If you didn’t know better, you might see an Atlas moth and think it was an impressive wooden sculpture. The Atlas moth is one of the biggest insects on the planet, with a wingspan stretching up up to over 12 inches across. That’s bigger than a human hand.

A native of Southeast Asia, its unclear whether the Atlas moth was named after the Titan god of Greek mythology, or if the name was a reference to the map-like patterns on its wings. Regardless, this is one insect that at least appears that it could fulfill the heavenly duties of endurance and astronomy. 

As caterpillars, the species reach up to five inches long, spending nearly every second eating citrus fruit, guava, Jamaican cherry trees and cinnamon leaves. They must consume enough food before going into the cocoon to last not only for their month-long pupa stage, but to sustain them as adult moths, which don’t eat at all. For that reason, they only live one to two weeks after spreading their wings. Such a short lifespan for a creature of such visual grandeur! In this short time, the moths spend most of the day resting to preserve energy, and at night go on the hunt for a mate.

The moth's Cantonese name translates to “snake’s head moth,” not only because the tips of its wings look similar to a snake’s head, but also because of its survival technique when threatened: it drops to the ground and manipulates it wings, imitating snake head and neck movements to scare away predators. Its wing tips look so much like snake heads that images of the atlas moth have gone viral, with rumors abounding that it might be deadly. Worry not, this majestic creatures is harmless. In fact, it is a purveyor of beauty and function: atlas moth caterpillars produce silk similar to that created by domesticated silkworms, but courser, and brown, and more durable. The strong strands are what they use to build their cocoons, which are themselves durable enough that in some Asian countries abandoned cocoons are used as change purses.

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