100 Years – 100 Objects: Muga Silk Moth

The Houston Museum of Natural Science was founded in 1909 – meaning that the curators of the Houston Museum of Natural Science have been collecting and preserving natural and cultural treasures for a hundred years now. For this yearlong series, our current curators have chosen one hundred exceptional objects from the Museum’s immense storehouse of specimens and artifacts—one for each year of our history. Check back here frequently to learn more about this diverse selection of behind-the-scenes curiosities—we will post the image and description of a new object every few days.

This description is from Nancy, the museum’s director of the Cockrell Butterfly Center and curator of entomology. She’s chosen a selection of objects that represent the rarest and most interesting insects in the Museum’s collections,that we’ll be sharing here – and at 100.hmns.org– throughout the year.

Muga Silk Moth – Antheraea assamensis

Muga Silk Moth - Antheraea assamensis resize

This large moth from the lowland forests of India and Burna is related to our polyphemus moth (Antheraea polyphemus), the most common giant silk moth in Houston.  Here the smaller male, with brushier antennae, is shown on the left, the female on the right.  Muga silk moths are not particularly spectacular or endangered, but they are the source of a very special, very expensive fabric called Muga or Muga silk.

Muga silk moth caterpillars eat leaves of trees in the laurel and magnolia families.  The silk with which they construct their cocoon when pupating is a rich amber color.  Silk “farmers” care for the caterpillars, moving them from tree to tree until they are ready to pupate.  The caterpillars pupate inside small boxes made of twigs provided by the farmers, who then harvest the cocoons, unwinding them to make silk thread that is woven into a luxurious fabric.  For 600 years, muga silk was worn only by the kings and noble families of the Assam state in northern India and was unknown to the outside world, until it was discovered by a French traveler to the area in 1692.  Today muga silk is available from specialty shops, but is very expensive.  It is used to make fine saris and other garments.

The silk fabric made from muga silk moth cocoons does not need to be bleached or dyed, but has a natural shimmering golden color that becomes more lustrous the more it is washed.  Muga silk is extremely strong and durable (garments often outliving their owners), as well as being stain resistant and absorbing moisture, making it very comfortable to wear.

The muga silk “industry” continues to be mostly the domain of small, local farmers, unlike the hugely industrialized production of the more common mulberry silk (from Bombyx mori, an unrelated moth species).

Learn more about moths and their relatives in a visit to the new Brown Hall of Entomology, a part of the Cockrell Butterfly Center– a living, walk-through rainforest at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

You can see more images of this fascinating artifact – as well as the others we’ve posted so far this year – in the 100 Objects section at 100.hmns.org