Giant caterpillars hatch in hot house at Butterfly and Wildlife Park at Long Sutton, in Lincolnshire

Just imagine finding one of these on your lettuce. Mind you these babies are more at home munching their way through entire trees than a bit of salad.

Caterpillars of the mighty Atlas moth from Southeast Asia can grow up to six inches long before they pupate.

When they hatch, the adult moths have a wingspan up to a foot across and take their name from their markings, which

resemble a map.

While they're not good for the garden, they won't leave your clothes looking like Al Capone's car.

For the behemoths don't eat at all during their two-week adult life and don't even have mouths.

Instead they cram as much food in as they can while they're still at the wriggly stage to get them through the rigours of finding a mate.

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Staff at the Butterfly and Wildlife Park at Long Sutton have been trying to breed Atlas moths for the last four years.

Yesterday, one of its first successes hatched and spread its wings for the first time - while the next generation were busily munching their way through a hibiscus tree.

'They're the largest moth in the world in terms of the area of their wingspan,' said Michael Crosse, one of the park's directors, admiring the new arrival. 'This is a male, a small one. The females are even larger.'

Back in the bushes, a small army of fat grubs the size of your index finger were gorging themselves on the greenery, stocking up for their all too brief adulthood.

'It can't eat and it's got one thing on its mind,' said Mr Crosse. 'It's got to find a mate.

'They have an incredibly slow flight, like a small bird, but it's quite a strong, powerful flight.'

Mr Crosse became an entomologist after a career as a librarian, when he bought the London Butterfly House.

He has been trying to breed Atlas moths since he bought the Butterfly and Wildlife Park with his wife Merle and co-directors Peter and Emma Smeaton four years ago.

'We've had them here, they've paired up but for some reason either they've not laid their eggs on the right plant, the light's wrong or something,' he said.

Atlas moths and other tropical creepy crawlies like their hot houses just right, as in somewhere around the 26 - 28C mark.

'You don't want to get it too hot, you don't want to get it too cold,' said Mr Crosse.

When conditions are right, caterpillars spin themselves coccoons which look like mis-shapen tea bags hanging from the boughs.

Where possible, these are collected and placed in a cabinet where they can metamorphose safely - fixed to racks with a dab of super glue.

Those that hatch take to the wing around the banana trees and the flowering maple in search of a mate, while zebra finches whirr overhead, quails scuttle through the undergrowth and a cayman watches from the corner with his unblinking eye.

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