A-z - Animals

Hawk Moth Caterpillar

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"One of the largest caterpillars"

In addition to being one of the largest caterpillars, the hawkmoth caterpillar is also one of the prettiest, coming in green or teal. Unfortunately, the caterpillars, which are supposed to grow to 4 inches before pupating, require a lot of feed. There are legions of gardeners out picking tomatoes in the morning and finding the tomato hornworm stripping the plants bare, one of the most notorious hawk moth caterpillars. Nimble hawk moths, on the other hand, are prime pollinators of plants that are both needy and beautiful.

Hawk Moth Caterpillar 1

© AZ-Animals.com

Important Facts About Hawk Moth Caterpillars

  • Some hawk moth caterpillars bite potential threats, while others, such as the Abbott caterpillar and Walnut sphinx caterpillar, hiss, squeak, and whistle.
  • In warm climates, some hawk moths have two or more generations of caterpillars per year.
  • Some hawk moth caterpillars overwinter on Earth as pupae.
  • The African deadhead hawkmoth is a rather creepy moth featured in movies like The Silence of the Lambs . Its scientific name, Acherontia atropos , comes from Acheron, a Greek river believed to lead to the underworld, and Atropos, one of the three fates that snip a person's lifeline.
Hawk moth caterpillars usually have a horn on their back, and while this horn isn't hard at all, it's quite fleshy.
Hawk moth caterpillars usually have a horn on their back, and while this horn isn't hard at all, it's quite fleshy.


scientific name

Hawk moth caterpillars belong to the family Sculptidae. The family got its name because the caterpillar raises its front legs and head when at rest, much like the Sphinx of Giza. The family has 3 subfamilies, about 200 genera and 1450 species. One of the three subfamilies is Megaglossiae, named for the long, probing tongues of its members.


There are 1,450 species of hawkmoths, including:

What Moths Eat - What Hummingbird Hawkmoths Eat
Hummingbird hawk moths hover like hummingbirds.

© aaltair/Shutterstock.com

  • Hummingbird hawk moth or white-lined sphinx moth – hovers in mid-air as they feed, making them look like hummingbirds.
  • Hawkmoth – The caterpillars of this moth feed on wild grape leaves.
  • Oleander Hawkmoth – The caterpillars of this moth eat oleander leaves.
  • The white-striped sphinx – hovering while foraging, has also been mistaken for a hummingbird.
  • Lime Hawkmoth – These moths fly and rest on tree trunks at dusk.
  • Poplar Hawkmoth – These caterpillars eat toxins in plants.
  • African dead-headed hawk moth – This moth is migratory and is named for its resemblance to a human face.
  • Convolvulus hawk-moth – This moth has an extra-long beak to feed from tubular flowers.
  • Nessus sphinx hawk-moth – This caterpillar hisses and clicks by moving air back and forth at constrictions in its gut.
  • Eye Moth – This moth does not eat as an adult, but is attracted to light.
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Butterflies and moths are thought to have co-evolved with flowering plants and echolocating bats. The most recent common ancestor of all extant Lepidoptera dates back to the Late Carboniferous period about 300 million years ago. The nectar-feeding proboscis appeared in the mid-Triassic period about 240 million years ago, during the diversification of flowering plants.

appearance and behavior

Hawk moth caterpillars are large, with cylindrical bodies. They usually have a horn on their back, although this horn is not hard at all, but rather fleshy. Other caterpillars may have hardened buttons or eye spots in the same area. For example, the eyes of the Abbott Sphinx look like those of a reptile, as do the horns on other sphinx caterpillars. The caterpillar's hind legs, formally known as the anal forelimbs, are flattened so they can hold onto plants while the caterpillar is feeding. Hawk moth caterpillars are usually a wonderful shade of green with white diagonal stripes, red spots, and white particles that look like tiny pearls. Some hawk moth caterpillars turn brown when they mature.

Hawk moth caterpillars are usually a wonderful shade of green with diagonal white stripes.
Hawk moth caterpillars eat all their food for a month before pupating.

©Ernie Cooper/Shutterstock.com

Most of the behavior of hawk moth caterpillars is simple. They eat, they eat all kinds of plants. When these caterpillars first hatch, they start eating in the middle of the leaves where their eggs were laid, leaving holes in the leaves to alert the gardener to the problem. Their fecal pellets also give away the caterpillar's whereabouts because they are unusually large and grooved.

Hawkmoth caterpillars don't like to be petted and will scurry around, vomit, try to bite you, and may even squeak or hiss when you try to pick one up.

Gobbling food like they do helps caterpillars grow quickly. By maturity, the tomato hornworms have grown to 10,000 times their size when they hatched from their eggs 21 days earlier. Hawk moth caterpillars typically molt four times to reach their largest size. The appearance of a caterpillar after it hatches or molts is called an instar, and Lepidoptera entomologists can tell what stage a caterpillar has reached by measuring its size and sometimes its appearance.

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After they've eaten and grown to a decent size, some hawk moth caterpillars drop to the ground and burrow where they pupated. Others cocoon on the trunk or trunk of the food plant. Some hawk moth caterpillars overwinter as pupae and do not emerge until the following spring.

The hawkmoth caterpillar looks like an elephant's trunk and has eyespots to scare off predators.
Hawk moth caterpillars prefer warmer climates and develop relationships with the flowers they pollinate.

©Eileen Kumpf/Shutterstock.com


Hawk moth caterpillars live in a variety of habitats, but they predominate in warmer climates. Some tropical flowers depend on adult hawkmoths for pollination. This can be seen in the relationship between the Madagascar star orchid and the hawkmoth Xanthopan morgani , whose tongue reaches just far enough into the flower's long nectar spines.

In addition to tropical forests, hawkmoth caterpillars can be found in gardens, fields, meadows, heaths, urban parks, woodlands and woodland edges, pine heaths and wet meadows. They can be found in fences, waterways, hammocks, and orchards. In short, they can be found anywhere as long as there is an adequate supply of plant foods.


One of the reasons for the hawkmoth's success is that their caterpillars can seem to eat any kind of plant, even if it's poisonous. Tomato hornworms feed on the leaves of poisonous tomatoes and other nightshades. Alphabet sphinx eats needle-rich Virginia creeper. Giant sphinxes love pond apples, while striped sphinxes love Brazilian peppers. The great ash sphinx loves the ash and olive trees and their relatives, while the snowberry clearwing loves honeysuckle, snowberry, and dog hemp.

Predators and Threats

The wasps lay their eggs inside the caterpillars of the hawkmoths, which are eaten by the larvae.

© Richard Bartz, Munich aka Makro Freak / CC BY-SA 2.5 – License

Hawk moth caterpillars have smooth, plump bodies without stingers or bristles, and are highly nutritious. Therefore, they appear on the menu of many animals. This is true even if they eat poisonous plants, since most hawkmoth caterpillars do not keep the toxins in their bodies, but excrete most of them. Natural enemies of hawk moth caterpillars include many types of birds, reptiles, spiders, bats, frogs and toads. Predatory insects such as ladybugs and their own larvae eat caterpillars as they hatch, while they are still tiny. Certain types of hornworms are even sold as food for pet reptiles.

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One of the scariest predators is the wasp, which doesn't eat caterpillars itself but uses them as a food source for its babies. She lays many eggs inside the caterpillar, and when the eggs hatch, the larvae eat the caterpillar's blood while preserving its vital organs. Eventually, they work their way up through the caterpillar's flesh, cocooning on its body. This will kill the caterpillar.

Other threats facing hawkmoth caterpillars are climate change, habitat destruction and the overuse of pesticides. Some of these caterpillars are pests of plants that are valuable to humans, but the adult moths also pollinate these plants.

Reproduction, Babies and Longevity

Oleander Hawkmoth on Green Leaf
After about a month of feeding, the hawkmoth caterpillars pupate into moths.

© hwongcc/Shutterstock.com

The hawk moth caterpillar does not reproduce, but itself is the larva of the hawk moth. It hatches from a large, smooth, round egg laid by its mother on the underside of a host plant leaf. Newly hatched hatchlings are small compared to when they are ready to pupate.

Caterpillars eat for about a month, and stop eating when they grow up to pupate. If the caterpillar was born in the spring, it will turn into a moth sometime in the summer. If it is born late in summer, it may remain a pupa over winter and become a moth the following spring. An adult hawk moth only lives for a few weeks.


Some sphinx moths are endangered and nearly threatened.


Despite concerns about hawkmoth populations and that hawkmoth caterpillars are declining in the northeastern United States, more than 1,400 species of hawkmoths remain worldwide, and the conservation status of many has yet to be classified. However, hawkmoths such as the Blackburn sphinx moth and the Kern primrose sphinx are endangered and near threatened, respectively.

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Hawk moth caterpillars are herbivores. In fact, very few plants seem to be off-limits for these caterpillars. Because of this, some hawkmoth caterpillars are pests of crops such as tomatoes, potatoes, tobacco, and even catalpas on catalpa trees.

Hawk moth caterpillars do not hibernate, but if they are lucky and live long enough, they will pupate. This means that during their last molt, their exoskeleton splits open to reveal things like brown seed pods. The pod does not move or eat, but inside, the caterpillar's old body is destroyed and the moth's new body is built. If the pupa is going to overwinter, it may go into dormancy or diapause, in which case transformation stops for a while until the weather warms up.