One of world's largest moths with 10-inch wingspan found in US for first time, officials say

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An atlas moth was found in Bellevue, Washington July 7.
An atlas moth was found in Bellevue, Washington July 7.

The atlas moth, a massive insect with a wingspan of about 10 inches, was found in the U.S. for the first time last month, Washington state officials say.

The atlas moth is considered among the largest moths in the world, along with species like the white witch moth, which can have a wingspan up to 14 inches, according to the California Academy of Sciences.

Sightings of the creature in the U.S. are extremely rare – and were thought to be nonexistent until recently.

On July 7, a University of Washington professor reported an atlas moth in Bellevue, according to the Washington State Department of Agriculture. The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Investigation Service confirmed it was an atlas moth on July 27. It's believed to be the first confirmed detection ever reported in the U.S.

“This is a ‘gee-whiz’ type of insect because it is so large,” state agriculture department managing entomologist Sven Spichiger said in a news release. “Even if you aren’t on the lookout for insects, this is the type that people get their phones out and take a picture of – they are that striking.”

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The department and Washington state entomologists are asking the public to report sightings in hopes of determining whether more atlas moths are in the area.

"The moths do not pose a public health threat and thus can safely be photographed, handled, and collected," the agriculture department wrote in a release Aug. 5.

But atlas moths are a federally quarantined pest, the department adds. Under USDA regulations, it's illegal to obtain or sell the moths, for example, without a permit.

Atlas moths usually live in tropical regions throughout Asia, which makes its presence in Washington all the more mysterious – and raises concerns about survival. There's still more research to be done, but the moths are believed to feed on apple and cherry trees, the state agriculture department says.

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“This is normally a tropical moth. We are not sure it could survive here,” Spichiger said in the news release. “USDA is gathering available scientific and technical information about this moth and will provide response recommendations, but in the meantime, we hope residents will help us learn if this was a one-off escapee or whether there might indeed be a population in the area.”

Washington residents are encouraged to send possible photo sightings to pestprogram@agr.wa.gov. Though there have been no confirmed reports outside Washington, if you're in another state and think you've spotted an atlas moth, you can contact local officials.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: One of world's largest moths, the atlas, found in Washington state