Encounter: The Malaysian Moon Moth

This lovely moth we were admiring was probably in the last hours of an unenviable life spent sleeping and making love

An epicurean life peppered with hints of bacchanal experiences is one that many of us would envy, and it’s interesting how insects live such a perfect life.

It had been a week since the monsoon arrived in Agumbe and we had landed at ARRS hoping to have three field days spotting the region’s famed herpetofauna. The amphibians and reptiles must have been well camouflaged and the repetitive pattern of green and brown had put me in a state of trance. That’s when an apparition appeared.

Bright yellow, almost 12 inches long and half a foot across, it seemed almost artificial among the bright green leaves where I found it. I wondered first if it was a life-like miniature kite that was stuck in the leaves. I called out to the Green Ogres and exclaimed “Butterfly!” and got a curt rap on the knuckles. “Moth!” Well, most of the moths I had come across hardly had the vivid patterns I was looking at, so I knew this one was special.

We were looking at the Malaysian Moon Moth (Actias maenas) which occurs in South and Southeast Asia.  This specimen was a male, as it had brown markings on its wings with two circles resembling eyes that we might find on paper kites. The female of the species does not sport these wing markings. It is light green with a shorter tail. Striving not to disturb the moth we photographed it from a distance. When the moth did not take umbrage at our intrusion we got as close as a foot for clear shots. The moth stayed put and we found it at the same spot even when we returned that evening.

Malaysian Moon Moths are hard to find primarily because they limit their habitat to thick forests. Further, they live in the imago stage for only 7-10 days. That would strike many as an unusually short lifespan for a attractive species of a significant size. However, it would seem entirely logical if I were to explain that these moths do not have mouths through which they can feed. All the feeding happens during the larval stage when the caterpillars go on a feeding frenzy to prepare themselves for the cocoon phase.

Once they emerge from the cocoon the males wait until they can catch a whiff of the pheromones from the female, which they can sense even from six miles away. Female Actias maenas take flight before emitting pheromones, and this behaviour make them different from the other females of the Saturniidae moths, which emit the pheromones before taking flight. The reason for the moths’ rather lethargic disposition is that they have less than 10 days to find a mate, which may involve flying a significant distance while starving.

The moth’s sole mission is to mate. Now who wouldn’t envy a moth’s hedonistic lifestyle for all it involves – eat, sleep and make love!

Text by Anand Yegnaswami
Photographs: Sahastrarashmi and Sandeep Somasekharan
Thanks to Gopi Sundar for ID help

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