Mylantria xanthospila — “Plushy tussock”

Mylantria xanthospila, the “Plushy tussock moth”,  is a species of tussock moth found in tropical Africa. Their soft, hairy, plushy bodies, creamy yellow wing colour with almost embroidered looking patterns of complex orange and grey spots make for one beautiful and adorable moth species. This species is reportedly somewhat common, and can survive in a multitude of habitats. It is very polyphagous; recorded host plants are pine tree (Pinus), dandelion (Taxaracum) and other Asteraceae such as Aspilia sp, Psychotria (Rubiaceae), even grasses (Poaceae), oak tree (Quercus sp.), bramble (Rubus sp.) and some types of cherries (Prunus sp.).  The moths seem to be quite hairy in all life stages; eggs, larvae, cocoons and imago’s are covered in excessive amounts of hair. These hairs have a defensive function, making them less appetising to swallow, but also having mildly urticating effects onm their enemies when grabbed – they also help with thermoregulation and making the animals water resistant (hydrophobic). Despite being a somewhat common species recorded in many countries, not much is known about their early life stages – this article hopes to improve this, after a captive breeding experiment.

Mylantria xanthospila – adult male (imago) and fully grown larva (one week before making a cocoon)

The caterpillars of Mylantria xanthospila appear to be bright orange and hairy. They are solitary, and seem to be the most active at night. During the day they also appear to feed, but generally less, and more hidden in the vegetation, while at night, they seem to roam more and eat more.  On room temperature (18C night; 21C day) they grew from eggs to cocoons in 2 to 2.5 month time. Female caterpillars pupate much later than the males – because of their size difference, they take longer to grow. The moths are short lived and cannot feed  – they imagoes live for about 5 to 10 days. Females cover eggswith their abdominal hairs once they are laid.

Mylantria xanthospila female 

  • Difficulty rating Simple – easy to breed
  • Rearing difficulty:  5/10 
  • Pairing difficulty: ??? (I did not get a pairing)
  • Host plants:  Dandelion (Taxaracum) and other Asteraceae such as Aspilia sp, Psychotria (Rubiaceae), even grasses (Poaceae), oak tree (Quercus sp.), bramble (Rubus sp.) and some types of cherries (Prunus sp.), stinging nettle (Urtica dioica).
  • Natural range:   Atleast recorded in Burundi, Cameroon, DRCongo, Equatorial Guinea, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda
  • Polyphagous: Yes, very polyphagous
  • Generations:Multivoltine (usually one, but sometimes more generations)
  • Family:Erebidae – Lymantriidae (tussock moths)
  • Pupation: Cocoon
  • Prefered climate:  Warm and humid
  • Special notes:  Often considered a forest pest; outbreaks cause destruction of forest habitat
  • Estimated wingspan:  300mm-550mm
  • Binomial name:  Plötz, 1880

In captivity, the eggs of Mylantria xanthospila seem to hatch in about 2 weeks time on room temperature. Their eggs are small and exceptionally hairy, and can be hatched in a petri dish or plastic container. They tolerate dry conditions, although a very light misting could encourage them to hatch.

Mylantria xanthospila eggs

Mylantria xanthospila eggs

Shortly after hatching, tiny grey larvae appear. The first instar of Mylantria xanthospila has hairy tufts, a grey body with white stripes, black thorarical segments,  and two protrusions near the head capsule. They can run really fast for a young first instar larva, and prefer to hide themselves under leaves, slowly feeding on them. They seemed to prefer dandelion (Taxaracum) and nettles (Urtica dioica) above most other foods. Despite literature mentioning pine tree (Pinus) as their host plant, mine seemed to totally refuse it.

Mylantria xanthosphila L1

The caterpillars are easy to raise in plastic boxes. Make sure to include some paper towels that absorb the excess moisture from the plants. Although they are somewhat tolerant to humidity, an excess can make them sick.

Mylantria xanthospila L1

Mylantria xanthospila L2/L3

Mylantria xanthospila L3/L4

Eventually, the caterpillars grow to a size of about 3cm to 4.5cm – and become bright orange with the typical ‘tufts’ that Lymantriinae have, and a bright yellow stripe that runs alone their sides. Their hairs have a mildly urticating effect when touched.

Mylantria xanthospila L5

Mylantria xanthospila L5(?)

Mylantria xanthospila L6

Once fully grown, the larvae spin a large cocoon/chamber made from silk and their own discarded body hairs. The cocoon appears to be somewhat double layered; the exterior consists of one large, but thin layer of silk and hairs. Inside this cocoon the larvae spin a second, smaller cocoon which envelops the pupa more tightly. While the larval stage seems to last 2 to 2.5 months, the moths hatch very swiftly – in just 2 to 4 weeks, moths hatch from their pupae. Males develop much faster than females.

Mylantria xanthospila cocoon 

Finally, the moths hatch from their cocoons. Sadly, I was unable to archieve pairings because some of my larvae became sick before they pupated, resulting in mortality. Most of my livestock had died, and I was only left with a few individal cocoons. Despite that, this species is very easy to rear – and perhaps I should have started this project with more than just 15 eggs(!).  They should however be easy to pair, as are most Lymantriinae in captivity. The adults live  for 5 to 11 days; males are more short lived than females. Females cover their eggs with hairs once they lay them.

Mylantria xanthospila female

Mylantria xanthospila male

Mylantria xanthospila male

Mylantria xanthospila male

The males of this species are extremely cute, and look like wooly bunnies! A spectaculair moth to observe.

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Citations: Coppens, B. (2020); Written by Bart Coppens; based on a real life breeding experience [for citations in literature and publications] 

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