Sunset Moth Natural History

Credit: B Dupont via WikiCommons CC-BY-SA 2.0

Did you know that an estimated 90% of species in Madagascar are endemic and not found anywhere else in the world? Island regions like Madagascar are often subject to unique selection pressures, which results in all kinds of fantastical evolutionary responses.

One amazing insect species hailing from Madagascar is the Sunset Moth. Known for its brilliant technicolor wing display, the Madagascar sunset moth (Chrysiridia rhipheus) is an endemic moth species found throughout most parts of the island. C. rhipheus is one of the most well-known moths in the world and has achieved a kind of fame among butterfly collectors.

Sunset Moth Anatomy

Like most moths, the Sunset moth has an elongated thorax with oversized scaly wings. Typical specimens have a 7-9 cm wingspan with slight variation depending on the altitude at which the moth lives. Like other kinds of moths, C. rhipheus has a flowing tail and is frequently mistaken for a butterfly due to its bright coloring.

Credit: C Hough via WikiCommons CC-BY-SA 3.0

Sunset moths wings have brilliant color patterns that incorporate blues, reds, greens, oranges, yellows, and more. Unlike some species of moths and butterflies, C. rhipheus wing color is not caused by pigment. Instead, tiny scales on the wings scatter light waves like a prism, creating multiple colors. Some biologists theorize that the refraction of polarized light on Sunset moth wings might serve as a visual signal between specimens. Wing color may also serve as a form of aposematism to ward off predators.

Sunset Moth Behavior

Unlike most moth species, sunset moths are mostly active during the day. Swarms of moths will cover trees and vegetation during the day, settling down as a group for the night. Adult moths mostly feed on the nectar from flowering plants with their long tongues. Sunset moths seem to be specifically attracted to white flowers, indicating that visual cues play a heavy role in their food selection.

Sunset moths begin their lives as caterpillars and feed most on the venous tissue of leaves and plants. After about a week, they enter their cocoon stage and undergo metamorphosis in about a week, potentially longer during the cold months. Once adult specimens emerge from their cocoons, it takes about 10 minutes to start flying, after which it leaves to feed and mate. Sunset moths mate year-round but are most numerous from March to August.

Credit: F Vassen via WikiCommons CC-BY 2.0

Sunset Moth Interesting Facts

  • Sunset moths were originally believed to originate from China
  • Sunset moth populations go through cycles of explosive growth and decline as the seeds of their host plant become more toxic due to selection pressures from feeding, then revert as moth populations fall.
  • The sunset moth is one of the most sought-after Lepidoptera from insect collectors. Jewelers in the Victorian period would make pieces out of their wings.
  • The indigenous Malagasy people of Madagascar call the sunset moth “adriandolo” which roughly translates to “noble spirit” or “king spirit.”
  • The sunset moth is one of only two species in the Chrysiridia genus, the other being the East African croesus.

We carry a number of eco-friendly farm raised Framed Sunset Moth and Sunset Moth Jewelry products.  Including our one of a kind Skeletonized Sunset Moth, displaying the intricate wing anatomy.