By Emma Roth

Imagine living your whole adult life without a mouth. From the moment you reach maturity, you are in the process of starving, your one goal is to mate and then you die. This sounds morbid to our human ears, but it is the reality for a beautiful creature: the Cecropia Moth.

Last summer Audubon was given Cecropia Moth caterpillars by a volunteer. Day campers enjoyed watching these caterpillars eat and grow, becoming impressively large with spectacular colors: bright green, yellow, red, even blue. Then, towards the end of the summer these caterpillars spun their web-like cocoons and retreated from the view of the world as a magnificent transformation took place.

Cecropia Moths spend the fall, winter, and spring months in cocoons they spin from a silk-like thread, before emerging as adults in the summer.

For months, the moths stayed in their cocoons. They stayed like that through the winter and spring until summer when, recently, they began to emerge. As adults, they are truly spectacular. With a wingspan of 5 – 7 inches, they are North America’s largest moth. The bright green color of the caterpillar has changed to a vibrant orange/red furry body and brown wings with streaks of orange and white. The tip of each wing has a false eyespot to trick predators.

However, as spectacular as they appear, these newly emerged moths are already at the end of their lives. They had their last meal months ago as caterpillars, but as caterpillars, they ate a lot. Over a few months, the caterpillars grew from a quarter-inch when they hatched to over 4 inches long, doubling their body weight many times over.

As the adult moths don’t eat, their days are numbered, only surviving a couple of weeks at most. During that time, they have one goal: to mate. Females release a pheromone which males detect using their impressively large and feathery antennae. After mating, the female lays up to a hundred small eggs on leaves, twigs, or any other surface they find convenient. One of our captive females at Audubon even laid some of her eggs on the wing of another moth.

After mating, the moths have completed their life’s goal, and while they may live a week or two longer, they soon die. In 10 – 14 days, the eggs hatch as tiny caterpillars, and the process starts over once again. As I write this, I am looking at a horde of newly hatched baby caterpillars. Hundreds of them. At Audubon, most of our caterpillars will be released once, but some will become living exhibits and animal ambassadors for programs, and kept to through their adult lives next year.

Cecropia Moth caterpillars grow to an enormous size, over 4 inches long.

The released caterpillars will also play an important role in the environment, providing a valuable food source for many animals, such as birds. A single pair of chickadees feeds their brood up to 9,000 caterpillars to raise them to maturity. That means they must find up to 550 caterpillars in a single day.

When people learn of this life cycle, with so little time spent as an adult, it seems incredibly strange. As people, we often feel like our lives are only just beginning when we reach maturity. We even call that phase “early adulthood” because there is still so much left to be experienced.

This foreign life cycle is not any less valid than our own. Life cycles vary hugely across the animal kingdom. Some insects have an even shorter adult life stage than the Cecropia Moth. Mayflies only live about a day in their adult form before they die, although they can spend about a year underwater in their aquatic life stage before becoming an adult. While other animals may put time and energy into different parts of their life cycles, or live in ways that seem foreign and strange, it’s not any less valid or any less important to the intricate system of nature.

Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails and outdoor facilities are open from dawn to dusk. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at or by calling (716) 569-2345.

Emma Roth is a Nature Educator at ACNC.