Author Archives: cc35

It’s a Sad, Sad World Atlas Moths Live In

When I was on a historical tour in China, I visited an antique silk factory in Fujian, China. Inside, there were swaths of unfinished silk rolls and a small shop selling a multitude of silk products. One of the main attractions was the beauty cocoons, as women grabbed as many as 10 bags while excitedly boasting the cocoons’ anti-aging and skin firming effects. Detailed instructions on using beauty cocoons can be found here.

Silk Beauty Cocoons. Photo Credit: Me!

The Bombyx mori, or the domesticated silkmoth, is part of the order Lepidoptera. Silkworms primarily eat mulberry leaves and their silk cocoons feed the booming demand for silk in the textile manufacturing industry. Perhaps alluded to by the tragic tale of Pyramus and Thisbe, where the gods stained the fruits of mulberry trees red to honor their star-crossed love, the silkmoth is also cursed with an ill-fated life.

Despite their proclaimed skincare benefits, silk beauty cocoons are obtained by boiling the cocoons of silkworms, killing the larvae inside. In fact, even if silkmoth caterpillars are allowed to live past their pupal stage, silkmoths emerge blind and have become so dependent on human captivity that they can no longer fly. However, misery loves company, and the Attacus atlas, better known as the Atlas moth, also succumbs to a similar tragic fate.

The Atlas moth looks like a small bird from the distance, with a record wingspan of 262 mm. The Atlas moth is a Lepidopteran with the largest known wing surface area, though not the longest wing size. While the unbroken white silk of B. mori is highly prized, the light brown silk cocoons of A. atlas is also widely used and harvested. These two types of silk have comparable physical properties, but differ in their chemical composition. The cocoons of A. atlas larvae are composed of broken strands of brown Fagara Silk, a durable silk used in clothing and purses.

Brown Silk Cocoon. Photo Credit:

The A. atlas does not only share its beautiful silk cocoon with the B. mori, as the Atlas moth also lives an unfortunate life. Although the Atlas moth does not emerge from its cocoon blind, its adult form lacks mouthparts, preventing it from eating. Instead, the Atlas moth feeds off its larval fat supply and consequently lives for only 1-2 weeks. Their extremely large size is also a disadvantage, and they must spend their short lifespan evading predators whilst trying to reproduce before they die.

Wingtips of the Atlas moth are similar in appearance to a snake's head. Photo Credit:

Despite the slew of misfortune the Atlas moth faces, they also have heavy defense mechanisms. When in danger, the Atlas moth will drop to the ground and fan its wings, using its wingtips to imitate the appearance of a snake’s head. The A. atlas larvae will also secrete a defensive irritant when its hemolymph pressure increases, as when it is attacked by predatory ants or birds.

Although we can sympathize the plight of the Atlas moth, the parallels between A. atlas and B. mori foreshadow future complications from human interference with insects. Like the harmful domestication effects on the silkmoth, I can only hope the Atlas moth will not meet the same end.

Creepy Crawlers

Twas the night before class, when all through the dorms

Not a person was stirring, not even a mouse…

…except for this:

Earwig. Photo Credit:

That modified Christmas poem describes my suite on a typical weekday. Everyone is snuggled deep in their covers, sleeping soundly with sweet (I hope) dreams. And then there’s me, snuggled deep in the arms of procrastination.

Although I admit that I am definitely much more of a night owl than a morning bird, I try to avoid unnecessary late nights. It’s not that I’m afraid of how tired I’ll be tomorrow morning, but it’s more like I’m scared of what’s out there in the dark. Still, you can usually find me bathed in the glow of my computer at three in the morning and then scrambling to get dressed for that 8AM class. Despite having absolutely no reason to still be awake, I tend to spend my time relaxing—snacking whilst reading a good book. However, because everything is creepier at three in the morning, there is one very important thing I dread to do: go to the bathroom.

Now normally, if this were any other activity, I would just ignore it and wait until morning, but “when you gotta go, you gotta go.” Who am I to argue with my bladder? On this particular morning, I safely sprinted from my room to the bathroom. Nothing had flown at me or attacked me, and I heaved a sigh of relief, before I turned around and saw a lovely earwig.

Earwig. Photo Credit: Me! (at 4AM)

Earwigs are part of the Dermaptera order. They are omnivorous insects, usually eating whatever they find, whether it is plants or dead matter. They are also nocturnal, and hide in moist dark places during the day, which explains why I found one crawling leisurely out of the sink. Although my immediate thoughts flew to whether Germ-X could be a suitable substitute for washing my hands, I eventually snapped a picture and poured some shampoo in the sink, followed by a steady stream of water (I’m sorry earwig!).

I thought I only had to worry about an earwig’s main weapons: its cerci and the unpleasant-smelling liquid it secretes. Earwigs use their cerci for defense, courtship, grooming, and attacking prey. They also release a foul-smelling liquid from their abdomen in the face of predators. However, earwigs are a lot more intimidating than I originally thought.

Some species of earwigs are ectoparasites, which are parasites that live on the surface of their hosts. Earwigs of the Hemimerina suborder feed on the skin of African giant rats, using their cerci to pinch onto the fur, while earwigs of the Arixenina suborder, such as the Arixenia esau feed on the gland secretions of some Asian bats. You can watch earwigs swarming around baby bats here.

I am incredibly happy I have not ever and hopefully will never come in contact with these menacing parasitic earwigs. In the meantime, I will (somewhat) regrettably continue flushing earwigs back down the sink drain during my late night bathroom runs.

It Looks So Good You Could Almost Eat It

Every day after dinner, my mother would hand me a White Rabbit Creamy Candy. As she plunked the candy on the table, she would always make sure to offer me some  wise words of advice: “Make sure to eat the candy, because your breath stinks.”

Delicious White Rabbit Creamy Candy wrapped in rice paper (Photo credit:

Despite my mother’s brutal honesty, this sweet, milk-flavored candy was a favorite of mine. What made this candy so delicious was not the actual candy itself, which I found too sweet, but the thin sheet of rice paper wrapped around it. I would meticulously pick apart the translucent paper until I had a neat pile of rice paper flakes sitting next to my now, very naked piece of candy. The rice paper had a slightly vanilla flavor from the candy residue, and after a couple of chews, the texture felt very much like congee. It was a tasty treat I looked forward to every night.

Translucent Wings

Translucent Wings (Photo Source:

Named for its similar appearance to rice paper, the Idea leuconoe butterfly is a part of the Lepidoptera order, and is also known as the Rice Paper butterfly. They have translucent cream-colored wings with black markings and veination, and look so elegant whilst flying, that their style of flying has been likened to that of paper floating in the sky. You can see a video of them fluttering here

Beware though! The Rice Paper butterfly’s similarity to rice paper only gets as far as its outward appearance. Unlike the tasty dessert that masked my bad breath, I. leuconoe has an extremely bitter taste. Not only are these butterflies undesirable to eat, but pyrrolizidine alkaloid, one of the chemicals that contributes to their unpalatable taste, is actually toxic to many vertebrates.

Like other species in the subfamily Danainae (milkweed butterflies), the Rice Paper butterfly also lays its eggs on milkweed plants. Milkweed serves not only as the main source of food for the hatched caterpillars, but it also contains cardiac glycoside, which is a defense toxin that deters predators from munching on it. Over time, the I. leuconoe caterpillar will retain a lot of cardiac glycoside. Then, once it turns into a butterfly, it will accumulate pyrrolizidine alkaloids from drinking nectar. Borrowed from their diet, these toxins in their bodies give them a bitter flavor that they also use as a defense mechanism against predators.

Pyrrolizidine alkaloids also play an important role in the mating process. When female and male Rice Paper butterflies are ready to mate, the male will (I’d like to think, chivalrously) go first and secrete this chemical, along with others, as a pheromone. Releasing this pheromone onto the female’s antennae through his abdomen hairpencils signals his desire to mate with her. After successful copulation, the female will lay her eggs on a milkweed plant, and this heavily protected life cycle will begin again.

A Rice Paper butterfly taken at the Cockrell Butterfly Center, Houston Museum of Natural Science (Photo Source: Me!)

The next time you see a Rice Paper butterfly, remember, you are what you eat. Although it may resemble tasty butterfly-shaped rice paper, eating an I. leuconoe butterfly has more dangerous effects than chewing on a White Rabbit Creamy Candy does. I highly recommend you try a piece of the candy though, and perhaps you can snack on it while you hunt for Rice Paper butterflies!