Giants in the Night

Extremes in the World of Moths

By Insect Museum of West China

Langia zenzeroides, Zhao Li, 2015, From the collection of: Insect Museum of West China
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For many people, moths are horrible, repulsive little bugs that lurk in the night. They are often seen as ugly, stupid, greedy, eerie, unclean, and insignificant creatures.In Western legends, moths are the incarnation of witches that appear in the night. More recently, this distaste was taken to the extreme in the famous movie "The Silence of the Lambs," in which the moth is used metaphorically in the story of a psychopath serial killer. A Western scholar once said, mockingly: "Moths are like the evil stepsisters borne by the butterfly's stepmother.”

Moths are from a significantly larger family than butterflies. Over 160,000 species of moths have been discovered around the world, which is 10 times more than for butterflies. Although both are in the Lepidoptera order of the Insecta class, and moths are considered cousins of butterflies, they are far less impressive and don't have anywhere near as good a reputation as butterflies, because of their nocturnal nature and darker colors.

Actias selene, From the collection of: Insect Museum of West China
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Moths like to gather around lights. When they appear en masse, they are often mistaken for a pest outbreak, and people detest them.But when butterflies do the same thing, it is seen as beautiful. People generally love them, and even build butterfly parks dedicated to nurturing them. But when it comes to moths, adults often warn children that the powder on their wings is poisonous.

Archaeoattacus edwardsii, Zhao Li, 2014, From the collection of: Insect Museum of West China
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People really do not know much about moths, and the misunderstandings run deep.In fact, when comparing butterflies and moths, the Encyclopedia Americana describes the two as being not clearly distinguishable in terms of form or ecology. However, it also says that while moths account for the majority of Lepidoptera, most people are only familiar with certain beautiful, diurnal butterflies.

Some of the world's largest, most beautiful, and unique species are moths. They often have large wings, extravagant patterns, and rich colors, losing nothing to butterflies in terms of their beauty.

Moths (1998/2014) by Zhao LiInsect Museum of West China

The World's Only Giant Gynandromorphic Moth

Moths are gonochoric insects, meaning there are separate sexes, and most moths have different wing shapes and colors for males and females. However, there are some moths in the natural world with traits from both sexes, and these are known in academic circles as gynandromorphs, or more colloquially as hermaphroditic moths.

Coscinocera herculesi (androgynous), Zhao Li, 2011, From the collection of: Insect Museum of West China
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Hermaphroditic moths make treasured specimens for museums and private collectors across the world. According to research, the chance of finding a hermaphroditic moth is only 1 in 100,000, since they are usually nocturnal and difficult to observe. As a result, hardly any have been discovered: worldwide records contain only a few dozen, and all are from a few common species. The chances of finding a hermaphroditic moth among the rare giant moths are almost inconceivable. However, the Insect Museum of West China did manage to acquire a hermaphroditic Hercules moth—one of the largest moths in the world—from the Arfak Mountains on the island of New Guinea, in November 2018.

Coscinocera herculesi (female), Zhao Li, 2011, From the collection of: Insect Museum of West China
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The Hercules moth is considered the second largest moth in the world in terms of wing size, and the third largest in terms of wingspan. Its wing size is second only to the Atlas moth found in South China. Females generally have a wingspan of 10.6 inches, while males have a wingspan of approximately 9.8 inches. Its scientific name is derived from the hero called Heracles in ancient Greek mythology, who was famous for his strength and forced to perform the 12 Labors.

Coscinocera herculesi (male), Zhao Li, From the collection of: Insect Museum of West China
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Many experts have searched Southeast Asia and Australia in recent years in hopes of finding an Atlas moth, but they have always come back empty-handed. This giant moth is also missing in the book "Saturniid Moths of Southeastern Asia", published by Dr. Richard Peigler—an expert on Saturniid moths—while he was working at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science in Colorado. In March 2018, a professional Indonesian insect collector told the director of the Insect Museum of West China, Zhao Li, that Hercules moths appear in the Arfak Mountains in April each year. Zhao Li immediately appointed him to help collect some specimens. Several months later, the frustrated insect collector informed Zhao Li that the only Hercules moth he had collected was one with abnormal wings, which he was willing to donate for free until he could find a complete one the following year. Zhao Li was astounded when he opened the paper bag only to find a gynandromorphic Hercules moth, right before his eyes! Excitedly, he said: "Many entomologists are unable to collect even one gynandromorphic specimen in their entire careers. I was very lucky."

Coscinocera herculesi (androgynous), Zhao Li, 2011, From the collection of: Insect Museum of West China
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The Insect with the Largest Wingspan in the World

Which insect has the largest wingspan on the planet? Scientists have failed to come to a conclusion on this matter for years. Some believe it to be the Queen Alexandra's birdwing butterfly, which resides in Indonesia. According to the Guinness World Records, the wingspan of female Queen Alexandra's birdwing butterflies can reach 11 inches. Others believe it to be the Atlas moth, which is estimated to have a wingspan of up to 11.8 inches.

However, another heavyweight candidate is hidden deep in the jungles of South America—the white witch moth. Very few people know how big it really is, but according to actual measurements conducted by lepidopterists from the University of Florida, its wingspan can reach up to 12.6 inches.

Thysania agrippina, Zhao Li, From the collection of: Insect Museum of West China
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The South American white witch moth is known by many names, including mariposa emperador, ghost moth, giant agrippina, great gray witch, great owlet moth, and moon moth. It is characterized by complex serrated patterns on its white wings, which act as excellent camouflage on gray and white tree trunks. As a result, it is difficult to find in the jungles, and remains one of the world's most elusive moths. There are many strange stories about it.

Costa Ricans sometimes report seeing flickering purple lights in the jungle at night. Superstitious local villagers believe that these fast-moving lights are the white witches of the jungle from local legends. They fear such sights and are afraid to enter the jungle at night. The lights are actually the iridescent purple at the tips of the moths' wings, flickering at certain angles.

Thysania agrippina (pale), Zhao Li, 2012, From the collection of: Insect Museum of West China
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The Insect with the Largest Wing Surface Area in the World

Although the insect with the largest wingspan in the world resides in South America, the insect with the largest wing surface area is in China.

Atlas moth (Attacus atlas), Zhao Li, 1992, From the collection of: Insect Museum of West China
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The large Atlas moth is part of the well-known Attacus genus of the Saturniidae family, also known as greater silkworm moths in China. Moths in this family are mostly large and very beautiful, and they are the most sought-after specimens for insect hobbyists and collectors. This is particularly true for Atlas moths, as even males can have wingspans up to 9.4 inches, while the wingspans of females can reach 11 inches. Their wing surface area can reach up to 62 square inches, which is larger than any other insect.

In China, the Atlas moth is mostly found in southern regions. They are distinguished by the patterns shaped like the head of a snake on the tips of their front wings. As the two wings are large and beautiful in color, they are known in Chinese as royal moths. Due to their complex patterns, they are known in English as Atlas (or "map") moths

Atlas moth (male), Zhao Li, From the collection of: Insect Museum of West China
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The Most Beautiful Moth in the World

Madagascar was separated from the African continent 160 million years ago and the species on the island evolved many unique characteristics that are found nowhere else. The island contains some of the widest biodiversity on the planet. It is home to what is considered the most beautiful moth in the world—the Madagascan sunset moth. In China, it is also known as the golden moth, sun moth, or sunset moth because of the splendid, rainbow-like colors on its wings. It is a diurnal moth from the Uraniidae (swallowtail) family, which is spread across the tropical regions of the world.

Chrysiridia riphearia, Zhao Li, From the collection of: Insect Museum of West China
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There are also some pretty swallowtail moths in South America and Asia. The luna swallowtail moths of South America and the eastern swallowtail moths of Indonesia may not be as beautiful as the Madagascan sunset moth, but their elegant colors are more spectacular than most moths, and even butterflies.

Green-banded Urania (Urania leilus), Zhao Li, From the collection of: Insect Museum of West China
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It is easy to ignore many small creatures in daily life, but on closer inspection, they reveal an intriguing new world. Moths often have stunning patterns and colors on their wings. However, many moths are much smaller than butterflies, and it takes a lot of effort to observe a small moth up close. Their smaller sizes led scholars to refer to butterflies as large lepidoptera, and moths as small lepidoptera. However, if you magnify a moth, its beauty can be quite amazing.

Moths (1998/2014) by Zhao LiInsect Museum of West China

The large Madagascan sunset moth is astoundingly beautiful when magnified. When looking at one normally, although beautiful, it can appear to be just another real, living insect. However, it looks completely different once magnified, no longer resembling a real creature, but a work of art made from materials such as stained glass, metal, fur, and silk. The colorful scales that cover the wings look like metal or glass, and the hairy parts of the body resemble a mammal's fur.

The Madagascan sunset moth is therefore considered to be one of the most beautiful and inspiring insects in the lepidoptera order, and is well-known around the world. It is recorded in most non-academic books on lepidoptera, and is sought-after by collectors. Queen Victoria was fascinated by the colors of the Madagascan sunset moth and ordered the wings of these moths to be collected to decorate her hat. A Victorian-style hat would require the wings of more than 20 moths to decorate it. As this coloring was popular during the Victorian era, it is known in the fashion world as the Victorian color.

People catch butterflies and colorful moths mostly for their beautiful wings. These thin membranes have no color of their own, but are decorated by the thin scales that cover them. In fact, each scale is a cell with pigments on the surface, which reflect specific types of light to display different colors. The metallic sheen is produced by light being refracted by the scale's surface structures. Light is what gives butterflies and colorful moths a beautiful pair of wings, and makes their gorgeous color possible. The rainbow-colored parts of the wings of these moths actually contain no pigment. The colors are the result of refracted light, which produces a colorful decorative effect that never fades.Many expert artisans still use these wings to produce all kinds of jewelry.

Moth specimens by Zhao LiInsect Museum of West China

The Insect with the Longest Wings in the World

In Madagascar, there lives a moth known for its length: the comet moth. It has a very long tail on each of its rear wings, leading scientists to name it after comets, which also have long tails. According to records, comet moths have the longest tails of any moth in the world, with a length reaching 5.9 inches or more.

Argema mittrei (female), Zhao Li, 2011, From the collection of: Insect Museum of West China
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However, these records aren't even close to the reality. Based on the specimen collected by the Insect Museum of West China, the rear wings of comet moths can reach up to 9.1 inches in length—almost as long as a human forearm! It is undoubtedly the insect with the longest wings in the world—a full 2.8 inches longer than those of the white witch moth.

Comet moth (Argema mittrei), Zhao Li, 2011, From the collection of: Insect Museum of West China
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Some of the other species of the same family as the comet moth also have long tails. Examples include the green-tailed and red-tailed Chinese moon moths that reside in South China, and the African moon moth that resides in central Africa. However, these moths are smaller, with their tails generally in the 3.9 to 7.1 inch range.

Actias maenas, Zhao Li, 2014, From the collection of: Insect Museum of West China
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The diversity of the moth ecosystem is unmatched by that of butterflies. There are more than 160,000 species of moths in the world, which use all kinds of natural resources and live in water, on land, and in air. If you pay close attention to things around you, you will discover that a single moth has an amazing world to offer.

Credits: Story

Zhao Li (images/text)

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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