One of the world's largest moths was found in the U.S for the first time. How did it get there?

With a wingspan of 13 inches, the Atlas moth doesn't have a mouth; it lives only to mate and lay eggs.
Deena Theresa
The atlas moth found on a Bellevue garage.
The Atlas moth found on a Bellevue garage.

Washington State Department of Agriculture 

The Washington State Department of Agriculture has identified what could be one of the largest moths in the world and is now asking residents to report further sightings.

The moth, with a wingspan of 10 inches, was found on the garage door of a homeowner in Bellevue, Washington. They immediately sent an email to entomologist and University of Washington professor Patrick Tobin, who couldn't believe his eyes.

On July 7, Tobin reported the first confirmed detection of the Atlas moth in the U.S. to the Washington State Department of Agriculture.

The Atlas moth, along with species like the white witch moth, which can have a wingspan up to 14 inches, is considered among the largest moths in the world, according to the California Academy of Sciences. The creature is a federally quarantined pest, which means it is illegal to own, raise, or sell the live species in any form without a permit from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Sightings of the creature in the U.S. were thought to be nonexistent until recently.

It does not pose a public health threat

Now, what did Tobin actually do after receiving the email?

He immediately contacted the homeowner and informed him that the species was not native to the area. It had to be caught and reported. While the moth looks intimidating, it does not pose a public health threat and can be safely photographed, handled, and collected.

The homeowner understood the assignment. When Tobin eventually laid his eyes on the moth and held it in his hands, he was stunned. According to The Seattle Times, Tobin reported that the male couldn't have been more than a few hours old. Its wings were perfect, and not a single scale was missing from its body.

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One of the world's largest moths was found in the U.S for the first time. How did it get there?
Atlas moth compared to a man's hand.

"I was overwhelmed. For an entomologist who sees all kinds of insects, to see something this large, this beautiful, and in pristine shape, I was like, 'Wow, my career has been fulfilled,'" he told The Seattle Times.

Tobin, who previously worked in the invasive species department of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, laid the moth flat and put it in a freezer. He dropped it off with the state Agriculture Department in Olympia after a weekend of showing off the giant specimen to his neighbors and kids.

A one-off escape or part of a local population?

Officials now want to determine if the recent sighting was a one-off or part of a local population. "This is a 'gee-whiz' type of insect because it is so large," said Sven Spichiger, the managing entomologist for the state Agriculture Department. "Even if you aren’t on the lookout for insects, this is the type that people get their phones out and take a picture of — they are that striking."

The moth does not have a mouth and lives only to mate and lay eggs. But the species' giant caterpillar eats apple leaves and is a threat to the state's agriculture industry, said Tobin.

One of the world's largest moths was found in the U.S for the first time. How did it get there?
The non-native atlas moth compared with large moths found in North America.

"This is normally a tropical moth. We are not sure it could survive here," Spichiger said. “USDA is gathering available scientific and technical information about this moth and will provide response recommendations, but in the meantime, we hope residents will help us learn if this was a one-off escapee or whether there might indeed be a population in the area."

According to Washington State Department of Agriculture spokesperson Amber Betts, the investigation is ongoing, and there have not been any confirmed sightings of the Atlas moth ever since.

Washington State residents who believe they have seen this moth should send a photo to [email protected] for identification and include the location where it was spotted. While there are no reports of atlas moth anywhere else in the U.S., if you believe you’ve found it outside of Washington State, please take a picture of it, note the location, and report it to the State Plant Regulatory Official or State Plant Health Director in your state.