My interest in nature and its study goes back to the days when I was child. I spent my summer holidays gallivanting around the hill slopes of Dalhousie in Himachal Pradesh, where my grandparents had their summer home. What began as an interest, blossomed into a second career when I quit my corporate job a decade ago, and decided to dedicate myself to nature and its conservation.
My description of myself is a bit quirky; I like to say that I love to observe anything that moves in nature, apart from humans! Mammals and birds, amphibians and reptiles, bugs and beetles, and my personal favorite, butterflies, have kept me involved and intrigued for a lifetime. My love affair with moths is of a more recent origin and began in 2009, on a dark night in May in Arunachal Pradesh. I was with a friend at Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary, and we chanced upon a moth screen and bulb left behind by someone who was observing moths at Eaglenest. We decided to ‘borrow’ her equipment and set up the screen at night. The scene that followed was mind-blowing; over 1,000 moths visited the screen that night, in shapes, sizes, and hues that left us astounded. Till then, I had ignorantly classified the moth-world as one with dull and drab insects that fly at night.
Amongst the most gorgeous of creatures that are attracted to any moth screen are the emperor and silk moths, which belong to the family Saturniidae. Saturniid moths do not feed as adults. They have rudimentary mouthparts, and have a life span of only a week or two, living entirely off the food accumulated in their bodies during the larval (caterpillar) stage. Given their short life cycle, freshly emerged males and females need to find a mate as quickly as possible. Many female Saturniids emit pheromones to attract a male. In turn, Saturniid males have large feathery antennae, which can sense females from a long distance, even a few kilometers away!
The state of Karnataka, too, has its share of some incredibly beautiful Saturniids. Amongst the prettiest of these is the Bright Golden Emperor Moth Loepa schintlmeisteri. This species is relatively new to science, having been described by a German entomologist, Dr. Ron Brechlin in 2000. The moth was described with the help of specimens from Tamil Nadu, but is also found in Karnataka, Kerala, and Maharashtra amongst the southern States.
The atlas moths Attacus spp. are considered to be amongst the largest moths in the world by wingspan and wing area. In Karnataka, Sri Lankan Atlas Moth Attacus taprobanis can be spotted. This moth, once considered to be a subspecies of the Atlas Moth (Attacus atlas), is endemic to south India and Sri Lanka. The Atlas Moth is occasionally called the Snake’s Head Moth owing to the snakehead-like pattern on the tip of its forewings.
Another common Saturniid that is found throughout India is the Indian Moon Moth Actias selene. It is also called the Indian Luna Moth. The Indian Moon Moth has a wide range of larval host plants such as rhododendron, Prunus (cherry), Juglans (walnut) apple and banana. Studies have shown, that long-tailed Saturniids, such as luna moths, use an interesting strategy to fool bats, their primary predator. The Indian Moon Moth has a long, twisted, tail. Bats hunt using echolocation, and the long, twisted tails of luna moths deflect the echoes in different directions, confusing the bats. Studies showed that moon moths without tails were more likely to be predated on by bats than those that had tails!
The Malaysian Moon Moth Actias maenas, another long-tailed Saturniid, also is seen in the Western Ghats. This species, whose original range was from the Eastern Himalayas east to SE Asia (Hampson, 1892; Pinratana & Lampe, 1990) was first reported from the Travancore Hills in 1934 (Fraser, 1934) in Tamil Nadu. Since then, the species has been recorded in other parts of the Western Ghats, including Kerala and Karnataka.
Another Saturniid found in Karnataka is the Tasar Silk Moth Antheraea paphia. The Tasar Silk Moth is of economic importance as its cocoons are harvested to produce tasar silk. There has been considerable confusion on the taxonomic status of the Tasar Silk Moth, which is largely distributed across the Deccan Plateau. Many scientists and sericulturists still refer to this species as Antheraea mylitta. It took a publication in 2016, titled ‘What exactly is Antheraea paphia (Linnaeus, 1758)?’ (Peigler & Naumann, 2016) and a global Bombycoidea checklist (Kitching et al., 2018) to resolve this species taxonomic status, 250 years after its first description. Many Antheraea species including Antheraea paphia and Antheraea assamensis have been recorded to display gynandromorphism. Gynandromorphs are rare moths that display both male and female characteristics. In the most extreme of these cases, half of the moth looks like a male, while the rest looks like a female!
The sixth member of the Saturniid family that should occur in Karnataka is the Three-windowed Cricula Cricula trifenestrata. This species gets its name from the three semi-transparent spots that the female of this species has, which the male lacks.
For those of you who are not yet convinced that the world of moths is worth exploring, check out the Moths of India website for a peek into the moth world from the comforts of your desk. However, nothing beats the experience of seeing these marvelous creatures out in the wild, in their natural habitat. So, put on your nocturnal hat, and look around the bulbs in your home for your first ‘mothing’ experience!
Fraser, F.C. (1934). Occurrence of Actias maenas Doubl. in Travancore. Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society. 36(3&4): 759.
Kitching I, Rougerie R, Zwick A, Hamilton C, St Laurent R, Naumann S, Ballesteros Mejia L, Kawahara A. (2018). A global checklist of the Bombycoidea (Insecta: Lepidoptera). Biodiversity Data Journal 6: e22236. https://doi.org/10.3897/BDJ.6.e22236.
Hampson, G. (1892). The Fauna of British India including Ceylon and Burma. Moths, Vol. 1.Taylor & Francis, London. Pp. xxiii + 527. Saturniidae to Hypsidae 527 p – 333 fig.
Peigler, S. R & S. Naumann. (2016). What exactly is Antheraea paphia (Linnaeus, 1758)? (Lepidoptera, Saturnidae). Atalanta 47 (3/4), 500: 520.
Pinratana, A. & R.E. Lampe. (1990). Moths of Thailand, Volume 1: Saturniidae.