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Compiled by Mike Quinn

White Witch

Thysania agrippina (Cramer, 1776)

Family Noctuidae - Subfamily Catocalinae

Range - Photos - Type - Host - U.S. Record? - Largest - Etymology - Bibliography

This insect has the longest wing-span of any moth or insect in the world

White Witch - Thysania agrippina (Cramer, 1776)

(at lights)

Wilson Botanical Gardens
Las Cruces Biological Station, Costa Rica
19 April 2004 (Steven Daniel)

     The White Witch is the legendary moth with the greatest wind-span, up to 12 inches! Often referred to as The world's largest moth, it has many common names including Birdwing Moth, Gavilana, Ghost Moth, Giant Agrippina, Great Grey Witch, Great Owlet Moth, Moon Moth or Strix Moth.

Related species: Owl Moth (Thysania zenobia) & Black Witch (Ascalapha odorata)


  • Mexico to South America

Beutelspacher (1994) states that this moth is commonly known as gavilana (American Kestrel) and that its "distribution is from South America to Mexico where it is found principally in temperate regions, such as the area around Jalapa in the state of Veracruz. It also appears flying around the street lamps of San Cristobal Las Casas in Chiapas.

For collectors, the only problem posed by the gavilana is that they must avoid the great spurs on the moths' legs when capturing them."

Druce (1891-1900) also lists the the northernmost location as Jalapa, Veracruz, Mexico.


Type Locality

Large Concentration

     Beebe & Beebe (1910) reported observing in Guiana "a sapling near an electric light covered with fifty or sixty exquisite moon moths (Thysania agrippina)."

Host Plant

     Kirby (1897) credits Merian (1705) as rearing T. agrippina on the Rubber Tree - Hevea brasiliensis (Willd. ex A. Juss.) Müll. Arg. - Family Euphorbiaceae. However, the larva that Merian painted (see artwork discussion) is a Sphingidae larva, possibly Pseudosphinx tetrio or Pachylia syces. Note that  Duke (1998) does not include T. agrippina nor any sphingids among his discussion of rubber tree pests. 

     Stearn (1982) identified the plant in Merian's plate 20 with T. agrippina as Gumbo-Limbo - Bursera simaruba (L.) Sarg. - Family Burseraceae. See Gilman & Watson (1993) for information of Gumbo-Limbo.

     Surprisingly, there appears to be no published reports of the true host plant of T. agrippina. Janzen & Hallwachs (1999) and Robinson et al. (2002) report that its sister species, Thysania zenobia, hosts on Senna and Cassia, family Fabaceae, subfamily Caesalpinioideae. It seems likely that T. agrippina larvae also feed on woody legumes.


     Three hundred years ago, a most remarkable individual, Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) depicted the four stages of the "Great Owlet" Moth's life history, the egg, larva, pupa and adult in a 19.7 x 13.8 inch copperplate engraving. Versions of this famous work are found on at least three websites:

One - Two - Three

"Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium"

"After eight years preparation Maria Sibylla Merian, then fifty-two, and her youngest daughter traveled three month by merchant ship to Suriname. For two years she not only went around the settlements and plantations, but the two women explored the interior and survived many perils. Maria Sibylla Merian documented the metamorphosis of the tropical butterflies and insects. From this experience she created the base of her major work "Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium" [Metamorphosis of the Insects of Surinam] which she published after the voyage in Amsterdam, 1705. The book became her most famous work, it contains many figures of tropical plants and animals, which were still completely unknown in Europe."

    Two biographical sketches of MSM:

     Her artwork mostly commands four figures: 

Two works by Merian, (most notably her Pineapple Plant) from her Surinam trip were made into U.S. stamps in 1997.

U.S. Records?

     Kimball (1965) reported the following for Thysania agrippina in Florida:

"There is a fine specimen of this in the University of Tampa collection, taken in Tampa by Prof. C. T. Reed, of the biology Department. Unfortunately the body has been eaten by Dermestes. It is, of course, a stray."

     Charles P. Kimball (1897-1982) began collecting Lepidoptera, mostly moths, in Florida in 1946. After 1951, Kimball spent most of each year on Siesta Key, near Sarasota, FL (Heppner 2007). Kimball's study of Lepidoptera led to the 1965 publication of an annotated catalog for the state. His former base near Sarasota is approximately 40 miles south of Tampa

     According to Horace R. Burke (Professor Emeritus, Department of Entomology, Texas A&M University, pers. comm., 2004), Clyde Theodore Reed (1891-1985) was an incessant traveler, collector and scholar. He either attended, taught or administered at universities in Kansas, Maryland, New York, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Istanbul (Turkey!), Texas, (Fort Worth, Corpus Christi, & Kingsville), Tennessee, Arkansas, and Florida from 1910 to 1944! In 1944, Reed joined the University of Tampa as the head of the Department of Biology. In addition to insects, Reed collected bird skins, eggs and molluscs. He was interested in marine biology, botany, poetry, and religion as well as entomology. (Burke cited (Cattell 1949) as his primary reference on Reed.)

     Reed obviously had many wide-ranging pursuits, but apparently the proper care, labeling and publishing of his records didn't get the attention they should have. Neither Kimball nor Heppner (2007) report a date for this specimen which strongly indicates that Reed's specimen lacked a label. 

     An old, unlabeled specimen of a primarily South American moth with no Caribbean population reported from Tampa raises questions about the validity of the record. Unfortunately, Reed's collection and any notebooks he had at the University of Miami were lost to fire. There may be more details on Reed's specimen among Kimball's papers at the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity in Gainesville, FL. Heppner (2007)

     Florida has the highest percentage of exotic species of any state except Hawaii. Frank & McCoy (1992) found 271 exotic insect species reported in the literature for the first time between 1971 and 1991. By 1994, Frank & McCoy (1995) estimated that the number of exotic insect species present in Florida at about 1,000. They report that "some of them [came] as fly-ins, but many as contaminants of cargoes." It's possible that Reed's specimen arrived in Florida by plane or ship cargo. 

     Kimball (1965) was apparently the source for Thysania agrippina's inclusion in Hodges et al. (1983).

World's Largest Insect?

     What actually is the world's largest insect depends on how you measure it. Here are drawings and measurements of candidates for the longest, widest, greatest area and heaviest insects of the world as compiled by John R. Meyer, Department of Entomology, North Carolina State University.

     See also, Kons (2000) discussion of the largest Lepidopteran wing span.


     Thysania agrippina (Cramer, 1776)

     thysan, -o, =us (G). A fringe
     agri, (G). Wild, fierce
     pinna, (L). A wing


     Pieter Cramer (1721-1776) - Natural History Museum
     Pieter Cramer (1721 - 1776 or 1779) - Wikipedia 

Request for Help

If you have any additional information on this insect, please contact: 

Mike Quinn, Austin Texas



Beebe, M.B., & C.W. Beebe. 1910. Our Search for a Wilderness: An Account of Two Ornithological Expeditions. Henry Holt and Co., New York. 408 pp.

Beutelspacher, C.R.. 1994. A Guide to Mexico's Butterflies and Moths. Minutiae Mexicana, México, D.F. 96 pp.

Borror, D.J. 1960. Dictionary of Word Roots and Combining Forms. National Press Books, Palo Alto. v + 134 pp.

Cattell, J. (editor). 1949. American Men of Science (eighth edition). The Science Press, Lancaster, PA. 

Cramer, P. & C. Stoll. 1776. De uitlandsche Kapellen voorkomende in de drie Waereld-Deelen Asia, Africa en America. S. J. Baalde & Barthelemy Wild, Amsterdam and Utrecht. Vol. 1: 1-132, pls. I-XCVI.

Druce, H. 1891-1900. Lepidoptera-Heterocera. Volume I, Pg 375. In: F.D. Godman & O. Salvin (eds.), Biologia Centrali-Americana. Taylor & Francis, London. 3 vols. 

Duke, J.A. 1983. 1998. Handbook of Energy Crops: Hevea brasiliensis (Willd.) Muell.-Arg. unpublished.

Frank, J.H.& E.D. McCoy. 1992. The immigration of insects to Florida, with a tabulation of records published since 1970. Florida Entomologist 75: 1-28. 

Frank, J.H.& E.D. McCoy. 1993. The introduction of insects into Florida. Florida Entomologist 76: 1-53. 

Frank, J.H.& E.D. McCoy. 1994. Commercial importation into Florida of invertebrate animals as biological control agents. Florida Entomologist 77: 1-20.

Frank, J.H.&  E.D. McCoy. 1995. Precinctive insect species in Florida. Florida Entomologist 78: 21-35.

Gilman, E.F. & D.G. Watson. 1993. Bursera simaruba: Gumbo-Limbo. Fact Sheet ST-104. University of Florida, Gainesville.

Heppner, J.B. 2007. Lepidoptera of Florida. Part 1. Introduction and Catalog. Arthropods of Florida and Neighboring Land Areas, Vol. 17. Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Division of Plant Industry, Gainesville.

Hodges, R.W., T. Dominick, D.R. Davis, D.C. Ferguson, J.G. Franclemont, E.G. Munroe, J.A. Powell editors. 1983. Check list of the Lepidoptera of America North of Mexico (Including Greenland). E.W. Classey Limited and the Wedge Entomological Research Foundation, London. xxiv + 284 pp.

Hoffmann, C.C. 1918. Las mariposas entre los antiguos Mexicanos. Cosmos 1.  

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Jordan, K. 1924. A new species of Thysania allied to T. agrippina. Transactions of the Entomological Society of London, 1924: xvi-xvii.

Kimball, C.P. 1965. The Lepidoptera of Florida; an annotated checklist. Arthropods of Florida and Neighboring Land Areas Vol. 1. Florida Department of Agriculture, Division of Plant Industry. v + 363 pp.

Kirby, W.F. 1897. A Hand-book to the Order Lepidoptera. Vol. V., Moths-Part III. Edward Lloyd, limited, London. 316 pp.

Kons, Jr. H.L. 1998, 2000. Largest Lepidopteran Wing Span. Chapter 32 in: University of Florida Book of Insect Records, 2001.

Merian, M.S. 1705. Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, ofte verandering der Surinaamsche insecten. Gerard Valck, Amsterdam. 60 pp. 60 plates.

Poole, R.W. 1989. Lepidopterorum Catalogus. Fascicle 124. NOCTUIDAE. CRC Press, Danvers, MA. 1314 pp in 3 parts.

Robinson, G.S., Ackery, P.R., Kitching, I.J., Beccaloni, G.W. & Hernández, L.M. 2002. Hostplants of the moth and butterfly caterpillars of America north of Mexico. 824 pp. [Memoirs of the American Entomological Institute, Volume 69.]

Schaus, W. 1889. Descriptions of new species of Mexican Heterocera. Entom. Amer. 5: 87-90.

Schaus, W. 1892. Descriptions of new species of Lepidoptera Heterocera from Brazil, Mexico and Peru. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 1892: 272-291.

Schreiter, R. 1936. Erebus odora L., Thysania zenobia Cram. y Thysania agrippina Cram. (Lepidopt.-Noctuidae). Boletín del Museo de Historia Natural de la Universidad Nacional de Tucumán. 2:29-32, pi. I—II.

Stearn, W.T. 1982. Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) as a Botanical Artist. Taxon, 31(3): 529-534. 

Tietz, H.M. 1972. An index to the described life histories, early stages and hosts of the Macrolepidoptera of the continental United States and Canada. Allyn Museum of Entomology, Sarasota. 

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Zahl, P.A. 1959. Giant insects of the Amazon. National Geographic 115(5): 648, 662-663.

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30 Mar 2008 © Mike Quinn / Texas Entomology