Some of the largest moths in the world
Saturniidae Moth Scientific Classification
Saturniidae Moth Conservation Status
Saturniidae Moth Facts
This post may contain affiliate links to our partners like Chewy, Amazon, and others. Purchasing through these helps us further the A-Z Animals mission to educate about the world's species..
Among the largest insects in the world, Saturniidae moths are a family of moths in the order Lepidoptera. Some of the most well-known Saturniids include emperor, royal, and giant silk moths. Most Saturniidae moths have eyespots on their broad wings and large, heavy bodies covered in hair-like scales. Although they usually pose no threat to humans, a few species possess irritating hair, while others produce a potent venom that can prove fatal to humans.
5 Saturniidae Moth Facts
- The family Saturniidae contains some of the largest moths in the world, including the giant silk moths, imperial moth, atlas moth, and Hercules moth.
- Several Saturniidae moths are important to the wild silk industry, such as the Chinese tussah moth and the ailanthus silkmoth.
- Caterpillars in the giant silkworm moth genus Lonomia produce a potent anticoagulant venom that can kill a human being.
- Male Saturniidae moths can detect the pheromone “calls” emitted by females up to a mile away using their feather-like antennae.
- Adult Saturniidae moths die just a few days after they emerge from their pupa.
Saturniidae Moth Species, Types, and Scientific Name
Known commonly as Saturniids, Saturniidae moths belong to the family Saturniidae in the order Lepidoptera. The family contains around 2,300 species divided among eight subfamilies and over 156 genera. Some scientists also recognize a ninth subfamily, Ludiinae, but the legitimacy of this ninth subfamily remains disputed. In Latin, Saturniidae roughly translates to “offspring of Saturn,” an obvious reference to the gigantic size of Saturniidae moths. The family includes some of the largest and most notable moths in the world, including the atlas moth (Attacus atlas), Hercules moth (Coscinocera hercules), and luna moth (Actias luna).
The eight recognized subfamilies in the Saturniidae family include:
Appearance: How to Identify Saturniidae Moths
Saturniidae moths go through four life stages: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. Adult females lay their eggs in small or large groups containing up to 200 individual eggs. The eggs typically look either whitish or see-through and appear fairly round and smooth.
Next up comes the larval or caterpillar stage. Compared to most other moth species, Saturniidae caterpillars measure quite large. They average between 2 and 4 inches long at the end of the first instar and can easily reach 5 or 6 inches long. While many look bright green, mottled brown, or gray, others appear more colorful.
Once they’re large enough, most Saturniidae moths spin a silken cocoon around their body. They then hide within the leaves of a favored plant or in leaf litter to pupate and metamorphose into a moth. However, a few species shun the cover of foliage and instead choose to pupate underground. These species do not spin silk cocoons, instead opting for sturdier shelter.
After around 14 days, Saturniidae caterpillars emerge as adult moths. The most noticeable thing about these moths is their immense size. While they sport an average wingspan between 1 and 6 inches, the largest species – such as the Hercules moth – have a wingspan of nearly 12 inches. In addition to size, you can usually tell males apart from females by their larger, well-feathered antennae. Unlike some moths, they lack a frenulum, and the hindwings overlap the forewings. Although some species look brightly colored, like luna moths and rosy maple moths (Dryocampa rubicunda), others appear rather drab. Many moths feature circular markings on their wings that look like windows or eyes. They have large, stout bodies covered in scale-like hairs, and small, vestigial mouthparts, since they don’t need to eat.
Habitat: Where to Find Saturniidae Moths
You can commonly find Saturniidae moths in subtropical or tropical forests and woodlands. The vast majority live in the New World tropics, consisting of most of Latin and South America. However, you can also find a fair number throughout North America, including the cecropia moth, the largest native moth on the continent. Other noteworthy species include the polyphemus moth (Antheraea polyphemus), royal walnut moth (Citheronia regalis), and rosy maple moth. Around 12 species live in Europe, including the small emperor moth (Saturnia pavonia). You can also find S. pavonia in Africa, along with notable species like the comet moth (Argema mittrei). Meanwhile, the atlas moth hails from southeast Asia, while the Hercules moth is endemic to Australia and New Guinea.
Diet: What Do Saturniidae Moths Eat?
Saturniidae moths, in their caterpillar stage, are herbivores that eat a wide variety of foliage. The majority of species target the foliage of trees or shrubs. However, a few, particularly those in the subfamily Hemileucinae, also feed on grasses. They prefer healthy, bright green foliage and tend to select host species with broad, firm leaves. Some common host plants include privet, sweetgum, hickory, and walnut trees.
Like other moths, they only eat during their larval caterpillar stage. While the caterpillars are usually solitary feeders, a few species will eat socially. Once they reach adulthood, Saturniidae moths do not eat, as they spend all their time and energy on mating and reproduction. As a result, most starve to death just a few days after they emerge from their pupa.
Prevention: How to Get Rid of Saturniidae Moths
Generally speaking, Saturniidae moths do not pose a threat to their environment or humans. The caterpillars rarely destroy their hosts and do not significantly impact commercial and ecological interests. Although some people consider orange-tipped oakworms (Anisota senatoria) pests, they do not normally do any lasting damage to their hosts. Moreover, while some species – such as those in the genus Automeris – sport irritating, urticating hairs, most are completely harmless. However, several Saturniidae moths in the genus Lonomia do possess potent venom in their hairs that can prove fatal to humans. In high enough doses, their venom can cause hemorrhaging, kidney failure, and ruptured blood cells. If you encounter one of these moths, the best thing you can do is avoid them.
To keep these moths away, try using herbs that they find distasteful, such as bay, lavender, rosemary, and thyme. You can also combine cedar oil with water in a bottle and spray it around your house, as cedar repels most moths and other insects. Make sure to wash your clothes if you believe they may contain moth eggs or larvae and clean your floors and closets regularly. Finally, you may need to call a professional control service if you have a serious Saturniidae moth pest problem.
Related Animalsanimals that start with S
Saturniidae Moth FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)
Are Saturniidae moths dangerous?
While most Saturniidae moths aren’t dangerous, a few within the genus Lonomia possess deadly venom.
How many legs does a Saturniidae moth have?
Like all moths, Saturniidae moths have six legs.
How do you identify Saturniidae moths?
Saturniidae moths are identifiable by their large wings, hairy bodies, and distinctive eyespot markings.
How do you get rid of Saturniidae moths?
You can get rid of Saturniidae moths by spraying cedar oil or using herbs that repel moths.
Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.
- Project Noah, Available here: https://blog.projectnoah.org/post/56441645577/saturniidae-the-emperor-moths
- ZME Science, Available here: https://www.zmescience.com/other/feature-post/breathtaking-metamorphosis-the-saturniidae-moths/
- Science Direct, Available here: https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/agricultural-and-biological-sciences/saturniidae