Attacus Atlas, The Largest Butterfly in The World, Has No Mouth And Cannot Feed

Jul 11, 2022 0 comments

It seems like something that we could only find in fiction or a horror film, an animal that does not have a mouth with which to feed or that is completely sealed, leading it to an inevitable end after just 5 days of life.

But it exists and it is also the largest butterfly in the world, the Attacus Atlas, which lives in the tropical forests of Southeast Asia, the archipelago of Malaysia, Indonesia and Borneo. It is called Atlas for the titan of Greek mythology and for its great size.

Photo: Nevit Dilmen/Wikimedia

In some places in China it is called the snakehead butterfly , because the end of its wings resembles precisely a snakehead, in a perfect and spectacular example of mimicry, an evolutionary mechanism by which some species can appear to be another animal for defensive purposes.

The Attacus Atlas only feeds while it is a larva, then once it becomes a butterfly, it lacks a mouth cavity and its only objective is to reproduce, a task that it does as soon as it is born.

In some places, the silk it produces, dark in color and similar to wool, is used because of its great durability. But it is not exploited commercially because, unlike that produced by silkworms, that of the Attacus is secreted in the form of broken strands.

Its body is disproportionately small compared to its wings, which reach a wingspan of up to 24 centimeters. In this, it is only surpassed by the Emperor Butterfly ( Thysania agrippina ), which inhabits much of Central and South America. But the Attacus has more wing area, reaching up to 400 square centimeters.

The upper part of the wings is reddish brown with a pattern of black, white, pink and purple lines. The lower part is paler. The end of the wings, with the aforementioned mimicry that resembles the head of a snake, serves to keep the birds away from the larval areas, which are their main predators.

“When threatened, the Attacus drops to the ground and writhes, slowly flapping its wings to mimic the head and neck movements of snakes and scare away predators,” said Katie Pavid, of Natural History Museum, London.

Photo: Thomas Bresson/Wikimedia

Since it does not eat, only taking advantage of the fat storage accumulated during the larval phase, it tries to save energy by flying as little as possible. Each flight requires power and can take days off their already short life. They are also very weak and insecure fliers due to their weight and therefore rest during the day and only fly at night.

The Attacus Atlas (like the aforementioned Thysania agrippina ) is a heterocera, a group of Lepidoptera sometimes called moths, but which are nocturnal butterflies. Only moths whose larvae feed on textile fibers or stored food are moths, and Attacus larvae eat citrus, cinnamon, guava, and evergreen leaves.

This article was originally published in La Brújula Verde. It has been translated from Spanish and republished with permission.

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