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Giant Silk Moths in North America

Updated on October 12, 2012

Beauties of the insect world...

G

iant silk moths are large moths placed in the Saturniidae family. Sometimes called giant silkworm moths, these beauties are the largest moths in temperate North America and are truly spectacular. Silk moths often have dazzling colors and amazing eye spot patterns on their wings. The caterpillars are also stunning; they are usually large and beautifully colored with knobs or spines. One of the most well-known giant silk moths in eastern North America is probably the Luna moth.

I live in the Northeast and have seen all of the giant silk moth species present in this area. Below you will find an introduction to the life history traits of these insects, a description with photos of the silk moths in eastern / east-central North America, and links for more information about these amazing moths.

What is a giant silk moth?

A brief introduction to life history traits

Before we go any further we need to understand just what a moth is and how they compare to butterflies, which are a close relative.

Both moths and butterflies belong to the Order Lepidoptera, however, moths are much more common than butterflies and there are about ten times more moth species worldwide. Like many insects, there are still countless moth species yet to be described (scientifically). Moths and butterflies are closely related and the consensus among entomologists is that butterflies evolved from moths into a separate group.

One of the basic differences between butterflies and moths is activity and feeding. The vast majority of moths are nocturnal (active at night) or crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk) whereas butterflies are almost always diurnal (active during the day). Both moths and butterflies mainly feed on nectar.

Giant silk moths have no mouth parts and therefore cannot eat. As such the average lifespan for an adult giant silk moth is only around two weeks.

Giant silk moths undergo a developmental process called complete metamorphosis. This is the traditional metamorphosis in which the insect has distinct phases: egg, larva, and adult. A single female giant silk moth is capable of laying hundreds of eggs onto a specific/preferred host plant. Many of the caterpillars which hatch will be eaten by birds or fall victim to parasites. The surviving caterpillars will go though a total of four different instars. An instar is a developmental stage; in order to grow a caterpillar must shed its exoskeleton and each shedding results in another instar. Once a caterpillar has fed and stored enough energy for its development it will spin a silken cocoon (usually attached to a branch) and overwinter. Most silk moths emerge from their cocoons with the first early summer heat wave.

Have you ever seen a giant silk moth or caterpillar?

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Photos

Here are several giant silk moth species I have observed in the Northeastern US.

Cecropia Moth - (Hyalophora cecropia)

Larvae or caterpillar

Photo: courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Adult moth

Photo: courtesy Wikimedia Commons

This species is North America's largest native moth! Females with wingspans of 160mm or larger have been documented. Its range reaches as far west as the Rockies and extends Northward into the maritime provinces of Canada. The cecropia moth larvae commonly feed on maple and ash, although they have been found a variety of other plants.

Polyphemus Moth - Antheraea polyphemus

Larvae or caterpillar

I took this photograph, my brother located the caterpillar.

Adult moth

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

This species has an average wingspan of 15 cm (6 inches). The large eye spots on the hind wings of these moths are its most notable feature. Amazingly, the polyphemus caterpillar is capable of eating 86,000 times its hatching weight in less than two months! It can be found throughout North America from southern Canada to Mexico.

Luna Moth - Actias luna

Larvae or caterpillar

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Adult moth

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

This colorful and well-known silk moth is one of the largest in North America with a wingspan of up to 4.5 inches. They can be found as far west as the Great Plains, northward into Canada, and as far south as Northern Mexico.

Promethea Moth - (Callosamia promethea)

Larvae or caterpillar

Photo courtesy my brother.

Adult moth

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

This giant silk moth is found throughout the eastern half of the United States and lower parts of eastern Canada. The adult promethea exhibits sexual dimorphism with respect to coloration, meaning that males are distinguishable from females based on appearance. The above photo is a female. Males are a dark brown with similar wing markings. The average caterpillar length is 6.5-7cm.

Tulip Tree Silkmoth - Callosamia angulifera

Larvae or caterpillar

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Adult female moth

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The caterpillar of this species feeds almost exclusively on the tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera), which is where the name comes from. These moths are found from southern Ontario to central Illinois south to the Florida panhandle and Mississippi. Their wingspan can reach 80-110mm. The tuliptree silkmoth is very similar to the promethea, as can be observed in the photos.

Which species is your favorite?

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More Information

The following is a list of websites which are filled with information on giant silkmoths in North America and elsewhere.

~*Squid Angel Blessed*~

imolaK

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    • profile image

      crstnblue 4 years ago

      Never heard about this little creature before but glad to read your lens and learn about.

      Very good job done here! Keep writing! :) Thumbs up & thanks for sharing!

      Blessed!

    • jadehorseshoe profile image

      jadehorseshoe 5 years ago

      Another GORGEOUS Lens.

    • sousababy profile image

      sousababy 5 years ago

      Came back to google +1 this gem.

    • sousababy profile image

      sousababy 5 years ago

      Well, I really must pay more attention, I don't think I have seen any of these moths here in my area of Canada.

    • profile image

      Tarra99 5 years ago

      fab photos...visually stunning

    • orange3 lm profile image

      orange3 lm 5 years ago

      Great page with beautiful photos.

    • Diana Wenzel profile image

      Renaissance Woman 5 years ago from Colorado

      Loved this lens. The quality of your publications is always appreciated. I did not realize that butterflies had evolved from moths. This was a great learning experience. When we were young girls in 4-H, my sister chose entomology as her project focus. It was my first exposure to many different butterflies and moths. It was a big occasion when she collected her first Cecropia moth. I still remember that day. Fantastic photos and facts here. **Blessed**

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Fascinating lens. These moths are so beautiful--it's such fun to discover one in your yard.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Enchanting for start to finish. I've seen Luna Moths over the years and always felt like I was being given a gift but I never knew they were silk moths or that we had any in North America.

    • gypsyman27 lm profile image

      gypsyman27 lm 6 years ago

      This lens has beautiful imagery with the adult moths. I really enjoyed reading this page. See you around the galaxy...

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Wow, and Wow.. I could see another one of your next purple star or LOTD flying to you just like beautiful giant silk always do here .. dearest lady Jenna :) Actually, I would like to say much more reasons that why I do fall in love this lens at first sight.. Awesome pictures.. great informative writing.. etc. Plus 2 reasons.. You're one of my dear friend and I'm butterfly lover ;) Already tweeted to all my fans. So happy to visit. Have a wonderful time.. always .. dear cute lady :D