Coscinocera hercules (Miskin, 1876)
Hercules Atlas Moth
(previously known as Attacus hercules)
Don Herbison-Evans
Michael Cermak & Stella Crossley

Coscinocera hercules
early instar
(Photo: courtesy of Buck Richardson, Kuranda, Queensland)

This Caterpillar produces the largest moth found in Australia. The scientific name is presumably taken from the ancient Greek hero: Heracles (romanised to "Atlas", and anglicised to "Hercules"), who reputedly was the strongest man in the world, could carry the whole world on his shoulders, and had to perform 12 great deeds to become immortal. The great size of the moth was probably reminiscent of the great physique of Hercules.

This caterpillar starts off life as eggs laid singly or in small groups. The eggs are rusty red, probably camouflaging as leaf galls in the plant.

First stage is white and waxy, with black stripes. The second and third instars have brown patches over the last couple of segments, and have spines on their spines.

Coscinocera hercules
last instar
(Photo: copyright of Mike Cermak)

The fourth and fifth instars are blue. Each segment has two red spiracles on the sides, and two pale rubbery horns on the back. The feet are black. In the wild, it feeds on a variety of tropical Australian rain-forest trees, including:

  • Celery Wood ( Polyscias elegans, ARALIACEAE ),
  • Red Bean ( Dysoxylum mollissimum, MELIACEAE ),
  • Cheese Tree ( Glochidion ferdinandi , PHYLLANTHACEAE ),
  • Black Cherry ( Prunus serotina, ROSACEAE ), and
  • Queensland Apple ( Timonius timon, RUBIACEAE ).

    In captivity, we have raised the caterpillars successfully on a combination of:

  • Walnut ( Juglans regia, JUGLANACEAE ),
  • Tree of Heaven ( Ailanthus altissima, OCHNACEAE ),
  • Privet ( Ligustrum vulgare, OLEACEAE ), and
  • Willow ( Salix sp., SALICACEAE ).

    The caterpillars seem to eat all plant species indiscriminately. They are quite polyphagous. Pretty much it's a case of eating whatever plant they seem to be on at the moment, within the range offered.

    This caterpillar seems to be particularly thirsty, and needs frequent sips of plain water, but a few were lost due to too high humidity causing fungus infections. Getting the humity right is a challenge.

    The species is also difficult to breed in captivity, as the males and females often emerge from their cocoons at different times.

    The caterpillar grows to a length of about 10 cms.

    Coscinocera hercules
    (Specimen: courtesy of Tony Craft, Coffs Harbour Butterfly House)

    The caterpillar pupates in a long double-walled cocoon attached to a leaf.

    Coscinocera hercules
    (Photo: courtesy of Buck Richardson, Kuranda, Queensland)

    The female moth is slightly larger and paler than the male, and has a wingspan of up to 27 cms.

    Coscinocera hercules
    (Photo: courtesy of Neil Hewett, Cooper Creek Wildernes, Queensland)

    The male has an extended tail on each hindwing. Both sexes are brown with a white line running down each wing touched by a tear-shaped white mark near the centre. The female has broad wings, a thick body and lacks the tails, one on each of the hind wings, typical of males.

    The tip of each fore wing is extended to look like the side view of a snake's head. The black eye is very realistic. Why does this enormous moth have wing tips looking like snake heads? We do not know the reason but can suggest that birds who might attack the moth are frightened by the` snakes' which might attack them.

    The tear-drop shaped white-edged patch in the middle of each wing is a window enclosed by transparent scales. Why do moths have windows in their wings? A possible reason is that the moths are camouflaged by the background showing through the wings.

    In Australia, the species is found in

  • north Queensland.

    The species also occurs in

  • Papua New Guinea,
    where it is successfully farmed to produce set specimens of the moth which may be purchased for display.

    Further reading :

    Ian F.B. Common,
    Moths of Australia,
    Melbourne University Press, 1990, fig. 55.1, pls. 14.2, 28.15, p. 407.

    Peter Hendry,
    Metamorphosis Australia,
    Issue 51, December 2008, pp. 27-29,
    Butterfly and Other Invertebrates Club Inc..

    Graham J. McDonald,
    Moths of Tropical North Queensland,
    Metamorphosis Australia,
    Issue 75 (December 2014), pp. 7-12, Figure 10.
    Butterflies and Other Invertebrates Club.

    William Henry Miskin,
    On a new and remarkable species of Attacus,
    Transactions of the Entomological Society of London,
    Volume 24, Part 1 (1876), pp. 7-9.

    Buck Richardson,
    LeapFrogOz, Kuranda, 2008, pp. 8, 32, 33.

    Buck Richardson,
    Tropical Queensland Wildlife from Dusk to Dawn Science and Art,
    LeapFrogOz, Kuranda, 2015, pp. 190-192.

    Paul Zborowski and Ted Edwards,
    A Guide to Australian Moths,
    CSIRO Publishing, 2007, pp. 1, 4, 161, 164.

    Australian Butterflies
    Australian Moths

    (updated 21 November 2012, 29 August 2016)