Dysschema howardi — “Giant northern flag”

Found in the hot and dry zones of North and Central America (New Mexico, Arizona, Mexico) , Dysschema howardi, the Giant Northern Flag, is is the biggest tiger moth (Arctiinae) found in America.   For anyone that has the privilege of rearing this rare moth in captivity, here some instructions.  Interestingly, while rearing them is extremely easy on a variety of food  plants, the moths have little to no interest in pairing at all in captivity. This could be due to the fact that the moths synthesise their sex pheromones from the alkaloids they derive from their host plants – and other host plants (that are not Brickellia, their natural food plant) lack the correct compounds. Because of this, they cannot be bred in a sustainable way, and the only way to obtain them is from eggs from a  wild female or wild larvae, because unless reared on Brickellia, they will not reproduce.

An incredibly beautiful giant female of  Dysschema howardi

  • Difficulty rating: Moderate (It is difficult to rate this species. Strangely, rearing the larvae is extremely easy. But pairing the adults and reproduction in captivity is nearly impossible! On average I still would rate it a 6/10, though completing the life cycle is almost impossible, the larvae are also nearly immortal)
  • Rearing difficulty: 3/10 (From egg to pupa)
  • Pairing difficulty: 9/10 (Archieving copulations)
  • Host plants: Brickellia, but accepts other Asteraceae (Taxaracum). Also some varieties of lettuce! 
  • Natural range:  Central America, North America. Found in the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico, and (actual) Mexico. 
  • Polyphagous: yes (but only coniferous trees)
  • Generations: Multivoltine (continuously brooded in captivity, possibly bivoltine or univoltine in the wild)
  • Family: Erebidae/Arctiidae (tiger moths) 
  • Pupation: Naked pupa suspended by a little silk
  • Prefered climate: Very hot and very dry (desert)
  • Special notes: Adults that have not been raised on Brickellia, will probably not pair and have no interest in reproduction. This could be due to the fact that the moths synthesise their sex pheromones from the alkaloids they derive from their host plants – and other host plants (that are not Brickellia, their natural food plant) lack the correct compounds.
  • Estimated wingspan: 75 – 105mm (gigantic for an Arctiinae)
  • Binomial name: Dysschema howardi (Edwards, 1886)

Generally speaking, tiger moths (Arctiidae, or after the modern  taxonomy updates now the subfamily Arctiinae under Erebidae) are medium to smaller sized moths (the majority of them spanning only a few centimetres in wingspan). So it is not every day we come across a  species that has a wingspan over 100mm, competing with medium sized hawkmoths and silkmoths! Yet still, a select few species have evolved to a greater size. Species such as Areas galactina, Axiopoena maura, Pericallia matronula and Aglaomorpha sp. seem to be a few of the exceptions and giants among their kind. Another exception are the Dysschema moths found on the American continent. With wingspans ranging from 7cm to 10cm+, they are truly impressive tiger moths.

Male of Dysschema howardi

While the hindwings of the female are orange, those of the male are white. Males are generally smaller too, and more active.

An impressive Dysschema howardi female

Dysschema howardi, the northern giant flag, can be found in  Central and North America. While the majority of the population seems to be in Mexico, a part of their natural range crosses the border of North America, where they can be found in the hot and dry deserts of New Mexico and Arizona. Their natural host plant is Brickellia, an Asteraceae found in these regions. However, it seems that in captivity, the larvae are not so picky. They seem happy to devour a wide range of Asteraceae plants including the common dandelion (Taxaracum sp.) – and even lettuce from the supermarket!

Many larvae of Dysschema after a succesful rearing

If you want to raise the moths to adulthood for your collection or to study them, the good news is that this is extremely easy to do. The larvae need to be kept clean, given space, and not be kept too humid. If these conditions are met, they will be nearly immortal. I have had a 100% succes rate with this moth, raising 17 young larvae to 17 adult moths. This succes rate is nearly unthinkable in this hobby; and this species would be extremely easy to keep, if not for some complications. The plot twist is that adults that have not been raised on Brickellia, will probably not pair and have no interest in reproduction. This could be due to the fact that the moths synthesise their sex pheromones from the alkaloids they derive from their host plants – and other host plants (that are not Brickellia, their natural food plant) lack the correct compounds!

This makes rearing extremely easy, but breeding overly complicated. A good idea would be to grow Brickellia if one wants to breed continuous generations – or finding an Asteraceae alternative that has the correct compounds (which so far, has not been described).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADysschema howardi larvae feeding together

The larvae thrive in plastic boxes if given a layer of paper towels to absorb excess moisture – they will also like to hide in  these towels during the day, as the larvae seem to be more active at night (though ocassionally they also come out to feed during the day). They seem to be semi-social; despite being relatively solitary and not traveling or feeding in groups, they are still often seen eating in small congegrations.

Dysschema howardi in a fauna box

From egg to pupa takes about 2 months time (from egg to pupa), depending on individual growth speed (this can vary massively for Arctiinae) and temperature. For me it lasted about two months around 20C (=celcius). After pupating, they spend about 1 to 1.5 month in their pupae, bringing the duration of the entire life cycle up to more or less 3 to 4 months. The larvae like to hide under objects during the day and show more activity during the night. When fully grown, the larvae will look for cavities to pupate. Here they will suspend themselves in the air(!) by spinning a hammock of silk threads, and pupate. In captivity, they are fond of pupating inside carboard tubes (the ones that usually come with paper towels). But once in a while they will find a surface or even pupate in the corner of the container.

A pupa of Dysschema howardi, suspended in the air by silk

Interestingly, the pupae are covered by many tiny hairs that seem to be very sharp. The pupae, coming from New Mexico, Mexico and Arizona, are not very senstive to humidity (their environment is very dry) although they don’t need to be kept warm (keep in mind the larvae usually pupate under rocks or in leaf litter in cooler places). Handling the pupae may cause rashes or skin irritation.

Larva, pupa, adult.. the life cycle of  Dysschema howardi in the palm of my hand!

An interesting fact is that the adults of Dysschema howardi are able to feed. In fact, feeding is important in order to prolong their lifespans. They can be fed a honey/water or sugar/water solution, but will generally accept most sweet sugary liquids, including fruits.

Feeding a female Dysschema howardi

All in all, Dysschema howardi  is a legendary species that I recommend to all Arctiinae lovers. The most important thing is to keep the larvae clean and dry, and rearing them will be completely free of any mortality.

Caterpillars of Dysschema howardi feeding on Taxaracum

The best setup for this species are well-ventilated plastic boxes (fauna boxes) that allow excess moisture to evaporate, but that force the larvae to remain on the floor of the cage with their host plants (glass or plastic that the larvae prefer not to scale).

Dysschema howardi pretending to be dead

If startled, the adult moths can reveal their hindwings to startle predators, or pretend to be dead.

Some of the pupae of the many individuals I have reared

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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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