Antheraea pernyi — “Chinese Oak Silkmoth”

Antheraea pernyi, the Chinese Oak Silkmoth, is a fascinating species for several reasons. First of all, scientists are not even sure if it’s a real species. There is  some evidence to suggest that Antheraea pernyi is a feral animal, of sericultural origin. Sericultural means pertaining to the silk cultivation industry. The wild progenitor appears to be Antheraea roylei [(Moore, 1858) = A. roylii] from tropical and subtropical central and southern China, from which it evolved by chromosome rearrangement. Curiously, Antheraea pernyi and Antheraea roylei (= A. roylii) appear to be able to make fertile hybrids that were fertile through numerous generations.

Antheraea pernyi male
Antheraea pernyi male

That’s right! Antheraea pernyi is a domesticated animal. Which is a suprising fact not many people realise; it’s origins are rather human. It’s thought to originate from China,  but is also found in Taiwan, was introduced by humans to Japan, then was introduced by humans in Korea, the Amur region in Russia, and yes, even parts of Europe – in this case Spain and the island of Mallorca. As you can see, it lives in the temperate parts of the world, and the species is able to hibernate and survive cold winters. The species was domesticated for silk production; it’s considered to be a commercial species of silkmoth. [One of the most prominent pieces of information I could find on the internet, was a scientific paper titled “Diverse evidence that Antheraea pernyi (Lepidoptera: Saturniidae) is entirely of sericultural origin.” Published in 2012 by Doctor Richard Peigler, in Tropical Lepidoptera Research] .

Antheraea pernyi is also a very large and impressive moth, that’s ridiculously easy to raise (this is a good thing). It’s an excellent choice for any beginner that wants to learn how to raise silkmoths in captivity. Most important is that their containers are kept very clean, and the food plant fresh. The moths tend to have a pale, light-brown ground colour with transparent eyespots, surrounded with subtle pastel red and yellow eye-like markings. In rather rare occasions, the moths can also have darker to even chocolate brown or lighter to even orange/yellow colour morphs (livestock of unusual variants tends to sell for higher prices).

Antheraea pernyi mature larva

The larvae of Antheraea pernyi are rather chubby, with a brown head capsule that exihibits ‘freckle’ like spots, an almost fluorescent lime-green ground colour, and a creamy white stripe that runs along their flank. Larvae also have thin, long dark hairs. In captivity, these moths can be raised on dozens of plants – but it prefers oak tree (Quercus sp.) by far – hence the common name, Chinese Oak Silkmoth, and oak tree is recommended for optimal breeding.

  • Difficulty rating: Very easy – this species is one of the easiest species of Saturniidae to rear in captivity (together with Samia ricini). Very recommended to beginners.
  • Rearing difficulty: 3/10 (From egg to pupa)
  • Pairing difficulty: 2/10 (Archieving copulations)
  • Host plants:  Can be grown with good results on Castanea sp. (Chestnut), Eucalyptus, Liquidambar (Sweetgum), Salix (Willow), Fagus (Beech), Crataegus (Hawthorn), Cinnamomum camphora (Camphor tree), deciduous Prunus (Cherries), Corylus (Hazel), Betula (Birch), Photinia, Carpinus (Hornbeam) – and potentially hundreds of plants. However, they prefer oak tree (Quercus sp.) by far. For optimal breeding result, oak tree is highly recommended.
  • Natural range:  N/A: Domesticated species derived from the wild silkmoth Antheraea roylei / roylii (Moore, 1858) from central and southern China. Introduced by humans in Taiwan, Japan, Russia, Korea, and parts of Europe (Spain); semantically however it has no natural range.
  • Polyphagous: Yes, very.
  • Generations: Multivoltine – Seems to have two broods (rarely even three) a year before cocoons hibernate.
  • Family: Saturniidae (silkmoths)
  • Pupation: Cocoon (silk encasing)
  • Prefered climate: Temperate.
  • Special notes:   Easy and large!
  • Estimated wingspan:  110mm-155m (large species with large body size!)

The eggs of Antheraea pernyi are easily incubated on room temperature (around 21C) in plastic boxes such as: petri dishes, storage containers, or empty take-away food containers (make sure there are no large holes or openings the babies could escape from).

Eggs of Antheraea pernyi (the brown ones! Ignore the small white ones)

The first instars are black with white hairs, and a red head capsule. It is easy to raise them in plastic boxes. Important is to manage the humidity levels (avoid condensation!). If the oak leaves give off too much moisture, consider either A. adding a layer of absorbant paper towels on the bottom or B. poke tiny ventilation holes in their container. Otherwise, rearing them should be easy and problem free, as long as they are not too humid, are kept clean, and have acces to fresh leaves (replace leaf every 2-3 days).

Antheraea pernyi L1
Antheraea pernyi L1

For L1 and L2 plastic boxes work fine if kept clean! Replace food with fresh leaves every few days and remove frass. After feeding for several days, larvae shed their skins – the second life stage is green, with yellow tubercules.

Antheraea pernyi L2

In instar number 3 (L3) the caterpillars become quite beautiful in particular to due an additional row of turquoise blue tubercules that run along their side. From this instar, it’s recommended to remove them from the plastic container into something that has more airflow; such as a pop-up cage, or a ventilated container (with the lid removed). Plastic boxes can build up high levels of moisture, and this can make larvae sick unless there is proper ventilation.

Antheraea pernyi L3

Antheraea pernyi L3

A typical setup for Saturniidae includes a bottle or empty can filled with water – and cuttings of a desired host plant – inside a pop up cage for insects. The water will allow the plant and it’s leaves to stay fresh for several days, so that the larvae will be able to feed on it for a prolonged amount of time!

Antheraea pernyi rearing cage

The fourth and fifth instar of Antheraea pernyi look quite similar; the main difference is their size; otherwise their appearance is almost the same. In L4, the caterpillars develop a face full of – what looks like – freckles! In very rare cases, the larvae can have yellow and orange forms.

Antheraea pernyi L4

And now, things accelerate! The two last life stages of Antheraea pernyi will thrive in cages, between 19C-28C. They have a large biomass and become quite plump. Please enjoy some pictures of these large, fully grown caterpillars!

Antheraea pernyi L5
Fat Antheraea pernyi L5
Antheraea pernyi L5
Antheraea pernyi L5

When the larvae are mature they become very heavy and round! This species knows how to gorge itself with food. One fully grown, the larvae will spin their famous silken cocoons. The cocoons of this species are pale brown, and are oval; the colour and shape reminds me of chicken eggs. Sometimes the cocoons are anchored to the host plant with a silk pad; cocoons are preferably spun between the leaves in the vegetation (but in captivity often in the corners of the enclosure).

Antheraea pernyi cocoon

When can I expect moths from my cocoons? – This varies. Most of the time, Antheraea pernyi seems to have two generations a year. That means the first generation of moths hatches rather quickly from the cocoons; expect to see moths between 5 to 8 weeks after the larvae spinning the cocoons. The second generation of moths however, prefers to hibernate. This means that for a succesful eclosion, the cocoons must be stored cold for several months in order to break their diapause. Hibernating cocoons must be kept cold for 3-5 months and then warmed up to room temperature – this will trigger the development of the moth.

In some cases however, hibernating cocoons may eclose indoors if kept warm instead of hold. Since it may be difficult to source host plants in winter do to most of their host plants being deciduous, hibernating them is recommended either way.

Soon, your silkmoths will hatch!

Antheraea pernyi; male (top) and female (bottom)

The males have rather curved (falcate) wings while females have straight wings with more rounded edges. Females have a large body size and wing surface area compared to the males. Males have large antennae compared to the females.

Antheraea pernyi has been introduced to several places around the world since the mid-1800s, but the populations never persist, and eventually go extinct. This supports the evidence that wild populations of Antheraea pernyi fail to establish themselves in the wild without the assistance of humans, beyond their native range (although they may persist for several years). It is a domestic animal.

Antheraea silk is also known as ‘tasar silk’ or ‘tussar silk’ – it is rougher and more textured than the silk of other domesticated silkmoths (such as Samia ricini or Bombyx mori).

The whole life cycle! Moth, cocoon and larva

There are only three species of Antheraea that are closely related in this species group: Antheraea roylei, pernyi, and knyvetti. These three species are closely related, and the moths and their caterpillars have a distinct appearance from other Antheraea species. Antheraea roylei has 31 chromosomes, while Antheraea pernyi has 49. The modal (ancestral) number for most Saturniids chromosomes, by the way, is 31. The higher number of chromosomes in Antheraea pernyi can be explained by however, by chromosome fragmentation. When the species are crossbred into supposed hybrids, 18 of the chromosome pairings of Antheraea pernyi were trivalents. So this means that the difference in number of chromosomes between the two species, which is 18, can be explained by the fact that 18 of the 31 pairs of chromosomes in Antheraea roylei, havebeen fragmented into new pairs. This suggests that Antheraea pernyi, may in fact, have evolved from Antheraea roylei. All of this evidence would suggest that yes indeed, Antheraea pernyi is most likely a cultivated form of Antherea roylei. Morphologically and genetically there are little differences, although Antheraea pernyi has a number of adaptations when it comes to their life history that facilitates captive breeding.

Antheraea pernyi eyespots
Antheraea pernyi female

In captivity the moths are short lived; expect lifespans between 7 and 20 days and are incredibly easy to achieve. Keep the moths in a ventilated enclosure; made of netting or gauze. Mating happens in the darkness, at night – so keep them in a dark place. Males and females should pair up effortlessly.

Antheraea pernyi mating

Matings are easy to recognise, because males dangle below the females freely – grabbing unto the female with the claspers at the tip of his abdomen! After mating, the female will scatter eggs every were – she’ll glue them to the surface of her enclosure. They are not picky at all about egg laying.

Antheraea pernyi female laying many eggs
Enjoy your giant moths!
Antheraea pernyi male
Antheraea pernyi; large bulging female abdomen

Last but not least; we may offer you a video guide on how to breed Antheraea pernyi! It’s a long (and sometimes even silly) video; but it shows in greater detail how the species can be raised in captivity.

Antheraea pernyi breeding tutorial

Thank you for reading, and good luck with raising your very own silkmoths!

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Citations: Coppens, B. (2022); Written by Bart Coppens; based on a real life breeding experience [for citations in literature and publications] 

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