The Biggest Moth in Europe

Great Peacock Moth
Great Peacock Moth

Living in the comparatively unspoilt French countryside, one comes to appreciate the richness and variety of the wildlife. How about this for a wingspan? 14 cm is not very big compared to an A380 but when you’re a moth it’s pretty impressive. This is the Great Peacock Moth, Saturnia pyri, also known as the Great Emperor Moth. In French it’s a Grand Paon de Nuit (Great Night Peacock). And it’s the biggest moth in Europe.

This moth is present in western and southern Europe but not in the UK. So we had never seen one until we moved here and were impressed by its size. Now is the time of year when they emerge from their pupae and we hope we might see one or two soon, although it’s some years since we last did. Their numbers are said to be declining, unfortunately, which no doubt accounts for this.

Grand Paon under a hollyhock leaf
Grand Paon under a hollyhock leaf

The Grand Paon is easily confused with a smaller version, le Petit Paon, which has very similar colours and markings. But that one has a wingspan of 5.5 to 8 cms, whereas the male Grand Paon can attain a wingspan of up to 20 cm.

The male is distinguished from the female by its feathery antennae. These are, apparently, scent detectors, since the female gives off an odour. She doesn’t possess such splendid protuberances.

The poor things don’t have any way of feeding and their function is purely to reproduce. So they die after about a week, hopefully having fulfilled this role. They mate at night, which is when the female emits her scent, and I have read accounts of 40 or so males flying about desperately trying to mate with a single female.

The ones we have seen have mostly been dead already (like the one next to the ruler above). But we did once come across a pair mating.

The caterpillar is also an extraordinary creature. It’s a big, fat, green thing covered with hairy turquoise bumps. I have seen one, making its stately way up our stone table. It spins itself a cocoon in the crook of a branch and overwinters there, undergoing the metamorphosis that will transform it into the magnificent adult version.

Grand Paon basking on a wall
Grand Paon basking on a wall

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  1. I’m entirely with Mel on this one … for reasons I have never been able to fathom I am petrified of moths but love butterflies … however, I am really interested in this one – I had what I thought was a bird knocking against my balcony doors the other night and it was a vast moth – reading this, I now know what it was! By the way … I was uber excited a week ago when in the far south of Cantal I saw a Hoopoe having said I didn’t think we had them to you a little while ago. I immediately thought of you but was too slow to take a picture … what a glorious bird it is!


    • I’m so pleased you’ve seen one of these moths; I think that must have been what it was. Some organisation was doing a census of them, but I now can’t find the link. I hope we get to see some this year.

      Also glad you’ve seen a hoopoe. They are extraordinary birds. We have quite a lot of them in the area this year.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t like it when moths get into the bedroom at night, since they invariably end up on my head. But these are really rather special. Mind you, I certainly wouldn’t care for it if of them got into the bedroom!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. These are wonderful moths and we had them quite frequently around the Tuscan house, so it’s nice to know they are here too 🙂 I think woodland is the answer to keep them going and unfortunately modern farming seems to get rid of trees rather than plant or encourage them.


    • That may explain why they are (or used to be, anyway) around here. We have quite a lot of woodland in the area – including a small wood of our own, part of which we keep uncleared to encourage the wildlife.


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