Nudaurelia dione

Nudaurelia is a large genus of silkmoths found in Africa, counting over 50 different species (conservative estimate) that come in many interesting shapes and colours. One such species is Nudaurelia dione. These interesting moths have golden yellow males with beautiful pink to purplish markings. Females can be a little bit darker – almost orange, even – and appear to be more strongly marked. It seems to be a common species that covers a vast range in (sub)tropical  Africa, and is recorded in over 20 countries. The reason behind this succes could be it’s high degree of polyphagy – not many people have tried to study how many plant species this species uses in the wild, but from the few observations we have it becomes clear that the caterpillars can eat a large variety of distinct plant species and families; this ensures there are food plants available for them in most forests and shrublands.

Nudaurelia dione male

Nudaurelia dione is found in places that often have a very distinct dry and ‘wet’ (monsoon) season. In these localities, their flight time is often strongly synchronised with the rains (this is common for African moths of all kinds); pupae tend to stay dormant until the increased humidity and barometric pressure triggers the moths to hatch. In this regard they seem to be very adaptible; in dry localities they are usually found two to three months per year during the rains.

However, in more tropical (and thus wetter) localities, they are more active; in some places adults can be found 7 to 8 months of the year. Nudaurelia dione is likely highly adaptible, with the main limiting factor that stops their constant reproduction being the dry season. In tropical rainforests they can be nearly continuously brooded.  Thus, it does not come as a suprise that in captivity, the moths can be continuously brooded, producing 3 to 5 generations per year if you keep their pupae warm and humid, though dry conditions could potentially trigger dormancy in the pupae. 

Nudaurelia dione female; ex Cameroon 

The caterpillars of Nudaurelia dione are very social. They travel, eat and rest in groups, and it is only in the final instar that they become a bit solitary. They are also very beautiful: the caterpillars have a black cuticle that contrast with their bright yellow spines and white spiracula. Despite being silkmoths, this species does not spin a cocoon, and caterpillars burrow into the soil in order to pupate underground (as it typical of most Bunaeini). After pairing, females deposit 50 to 150 creamy white/yellow eggs that hatch after about 21 days. This species is easy to breed in captivity, if you have basic experience with silkmoths.

Nudaurelia dione caterpillar

  • Difficulty rating: Simple (Quite simple to breed with some basic experience). Caterpillars are very strong in captivity. 
  • Rearing difficulty: 4.5/10 (From egg to pupa)
  • Pairing difficulty: 6/10 (Archieving copulations)
  • Host plants:  Recorded host plants are Sweetgum (Liquidambar sp.), Cherry (Prunus sp.), Tung tree (Vernicia fordii, Vernicia montana) Bauhinia sp, Cashew nut (Anacardium sp.), Diplorhynchus, Eugenia, Khaya anthotheca, Guave (Psidium Guajava), Spondias, Chlorophora excelsa, Theobroma cacao , Antidesma membranaceum, Milicia exelsa, Acacia, Robinia, Oil-nut wood (Ricinodendron heudelotii), Vitex madiensis. There are likely hundreds of host plants and this list is just a tip of the ‘iceberg’.
  • Natural range: Angola, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo, DRCongo, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia
  • Polyphagous: Very polyphagous; the list of food plants is great and covers many plant families such as Euphorbiaceae, Malvaceae, Rosaceae, Fabaceae, Anacardiaceae, Altingiaceae, Lamiaceae, Oleaceae. More can easily be found in captivity with experimentation. 
  • Generations: Multivoltine (continuously brooded in captivity and most likely continously brooded in the wild too). In localities with a strong dry season, pupae may decide to remain dormant and will hatch after the consecutive rains during the monsoons in the rainy season, triggered by the humidity and barometric pressure. Otherwise they will always continue to breed, and they may do so in the wetter parts of its range. 
  • Family: Saturniidae (silkmoths)
  • Pupation: Naked pupa (underground) 
  • Prefered climate:  Warm and humid; the environment is perpetually very hot, but may have a distinct dry season followed by monsoons. 
  • Special notes: A very common species;  can likely survive 
  • Estimated wingspan:  90mm-120mm
  • Binomial name:  Nudaurelia dione (Fabricius, 1793)

In captivity, this species is easy to raise. Important to keep in mind is that the eggs of this moth tend to hatch in about 3 weeks time – a little longer than most silkmoth eggs. If you are worried yours are not fertile, give them a week extra. The small caterpillars are easily raised in plastic boxes on a variety of food plants. Personally, I have raised this species on Liquidambar (Sweetgum) and Prunus laurocerasus (Laurel cherry) with excellent result; but if you are creative and understand African silkmoths you will easily come up with new alternatives (they also feed on many Fabaceae). After hatching, caterpillars form small groups when they settle to eat. They should be raised to L3/L4 in plastic boxes, preferably with a substrate of absorbing paper towels to keep the moisture levels from food plant condensation low. It’s a social species, so they are okay with being a little crowded.

Nudaurelia dione L1

Nudaurelia dione L2

Nudaurelia dione L2/L3

After the first three instars, the caterpillars become more interesting looking; they are now black with edgy yellow spikes. From L4 and beyond it is perhaps adviseable to move them into cages or sleeves, preferably well-ventilated ones.

Caterpillars shedding from L3 to L4

Nudaurelia dione L4

Nudaurelia dione L5 (final instar)

While the fully grown caterpillars of Nudaurelia dione look somewhat aposematic, they do not appear to be unpalatable or toxic. It could be that the hard and sharp spines on their body combined with their impressive colours are a deterrent of their own, that will make a bird think twice before attempting to swallow one. In groups they also enjoy safety in numbers. Some evidence that backs this claim up is that in Africa, some local communities eat the caterpillars (N. dione was mentioned in some reports of entomophagy in Africa); although this is not hard evidence since they are boiled beforehand, which could eliminate the toxins.

These caterpillars are very though and have a thick, almost leathery cuticle that likely protects them from dessicating under the vicious African sun.

I was able to raise many of these to pupae with very little losses. In captivity, this species is though and dare I say, hard to kill.  You can keep many of them together in one cage, in numbers that would be unacceptable to most other Saturniidae. Neglecting your pets also isn’t a very nice or professional thing to do if you are a moth breeder. But let’s admit that things come up in life: work, personal drama, studies, your wellbeing.. sometimes we just lack the time or willpower. The good news is that Nudaurelia dione doesn’t care much. They will survive a little bit of neglect, and even a dirty or moldy cage that would make a sensitive species sick. Oh, old and  dry leaves? No problem. They will eat them, and if you still forget to feed them after all the leaves are gone, they will decide to eat the leftover leaf stems too. Most Bunaeaini (think Pseudobunaea, Lobobunaea)  are not ‘very easy’ to breed in captivity; (though some people will convince you they are).  I’d say they are difficult in fact, with the exception of some common Gombrasia/Imbrasia species. In that regard, Nudaurelia dione is a good ‘beginner’ species for the Bunaeini enthousiast.

Nudaurelia dione L5 (final instar)

Nudaurelia dione L5 (final instar)

When the caterpillars are finally finished – which happens quite fast, in about 5-6 weeks (although influenced by factors such as temperature, vitality and food quality). This species does not spin a cocoon, and caterpillars burrow into the soil to form a naked pupa there. Caterpillars that are ready to pupate fall to the floor (literally, I observed my caterpillars more or less dropping from the braches) and will wander around aimlessly in their cages or containers. In the wild, this is the moment where they will look for a perfect spot to bury themselves in the sand/soil and pupate. In captivity, paper towels in plastic tubs appear to be a perfect substrate, though vermiculate or sand can also be used.

Freshly pupated in paper towels

Nudaurelia dione pupae

The pupae of Nudaurelia dione can hatch as fast as in about 5-6  weeks time (almost the same time as the larval stages lasted); although it is likely possible that they can go dormant, something that they do in the wild when the conditions are unfavourable. Regardless, if you bury them in vermiculite and keep them humid, the moths are continuously brooded in captivity, although if you really want to, it’s likely possible to suppress them in a dry and cold place.

Nudaurelia dione; one male in the middle, surrounded by three females

Pairing Nudaurelia dione is moderately easy. I had a lot of couples (males and females) that could pair, and a few of them did after I put them outside in medium sized, well-ventilated breeding cages on a warm, breezy summer night. That being said, not all couples paired, so I guess it’s possible that some individuals just have no interest in pairing. They do not seem to stay together for 24 hours like many other Saturniidae, so it is possible to miss the pairing. Most of them paired in the middle of the night and seperated before I had a chance to see the pairing.  Despite that, I did see couples that were attached together early in the morning, so I guess some of them will stay together until the sun comes up. Keep in mind that the eggs make take 3 to 4 weeks to hatch, not the conventional 2 weeks the average Saturniidae takes (so keep them a little longer).

Nudaurelia dione pairing; carefully photographed with a mobile phone in the morning as not to disturb them. Low quality, but it is possible to see the copula in this picture. Click to enlarge. 

A complex species, or a species complex?
Molecular analysis suggests that within ‘Nudaurelia dione’, cryptic species could be hidden. Geographically, the moths vary in appearance – though subly, usually relating to shape of the wingtips, markings or shade of colour. In this regard it would be interesting to breed or collect moths from various countries and compare them. What we call Nudaurelia dione in one country could not be the same species as what we would call Nudaurelia dione in the other. However, cryptic species within a very variable and widely spread insect are not easy to figure out and likely require thorough investigation (or not; you can also just label them Nudaurelia winbrechlinmeisterii and pray that name is not synonymised later, when others decide to do actual faunistic work). A few similar looking – or nearly identical  rather – species already exist, such as Nudaurelia rhodina (Rothschild, 1907) from Tanzania, Zambia and other places. More work would probably expand the list of species within this complex.  I found that the biggest difference is found in the females. Males don’t seem to vary as much as females do in regards of size, shape and colour – and looking at females may perhaps give the biggest clue.

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Citations: Coppens, B. (2019); Written by Bart Coppens; based on a real life breeding experience [for citations in literature and publications] 

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