As one of the few entomologists located west of the Cascades, University of Washington professor Patrick Tobin is used to getting emails with photos of backyard insects from strangers.
His name often pops up on Google when people are looking to consult an expert, he said Thursday. However, when Tobin recently checked his email, he couldn’t believe what he was looking at: a picture of a massive Atlas moth located just a few miles away on a garage door in Bellevue.
On July 7, Tobin reported what officials believe is the first confirmed detection of this species in the U.S., to the Washington State Department of Agriculture.
The Atlas moth is the one of the largest known moths, with a wingspan of up to 10 inches. However, it is a federally quarantined pest, meaning it is illegal to own, raise or sell the live species in any form without a permit from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Tobin immediately got in contact with the homeowner and relayed that it was not native to the area. It needed to be caught and reported. Could he possibly go home and catch it before it flew away?
The moth, a tropical species, does not pose a public health threat and can be safely photographed, handled and collected, according to the state agriculture department.
According to Tobin, the homeowner grasped the urgency of the situation and drove 45 minutes from work back home, illegally using the high-occupancy lanes, to catch the moth in a bag.
When Tobin finally laid eyes on the moth and held it in his hands, he was blown away. The male couldn’t have been more than a few hours old, he said. Its wings were in perfect shape. Not a single scale was missing from its body.
“I was overwhelmed. For an entomologist who sees all kinds of insects, to see something this large, this beautiful and in pristine shape, I was like, ‘Wow, my career has been fulfilled,’ ” he said with a laugh.
Tobin, who previously worked in the invasive species department of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said he laid the moth flat and then put it in the freezer. After a weekend of showing the giant specimen to his neighbors and kids, he dropped it off with the state agriculture department in Olympia on his way to a trip to Mount Adams.
Now officials are asking locals to keep an eye out for the Atlas moth so they can determine whether the recent sighting was a one-off or part of a local population.
While the moth does not have a mouth and lives only to mate and lay eggs, Tobin said, the species’ giant caterpillar eats apple leaves and poses a risk to the state’s agriculture industry.
However, a formal risk assessment has never been done for the species since its native climate is so different and it is unlikely it could have ended up in Washington due to trade routes, he said.
Washington State Department of Agriculture spokesperson Amber Betts said the investigation is ongoing and there have not been any additional confirmed sightings of the Atlas moth.
It’s likely the July sighting was an escapee, Tobin said. The homeowner found a now-removed eBay listing in Bellevue advertising an illegal sale of live cocoons from Thailand, he said.
What is particularly beautiful about the Atlas moth, Tobin said, is the mimicry in its wingtips, which resemble a snake. The deceased moth is now in the possession of the state agriculture department, he said, but he hopes to get it back.
“I’d love to have it in my teaching collection, but I’m not too optimistic,” he said.
If you believe you’ve seen an Atlas moth, send a photo with a location to email@example.com. If you live outside Washington state, report the possible sighting to your local state plant health director.