Caterpillar Madness

29 August 2014 by Susan E. Swanberg, posted in Blog Posts

Sphinx moth caterpillar eats the lush monsoon foliage

Sphinx moth caterpillar eats the lush monsoon foliage. Credit: Susan E. Swanberg

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During monsoon season in Southern Arizona, the desert is teeming with life. Just this morning, on my way in from feeding the horses, I saw my horned lizard friend and a praying mantis. Horned lizard young hatch during this time of year, so I'll be watching for these miniature desert tanks.

Earlier in the season, a fantastic event occurred, one I hadn’t observed before. I wasn’t quick enough with my camera, and thought I’d lost the opportunity to film the happening until next year.

Fortunately, the white-lined sphinx moth, Hiles lineata, often hatches multiple generations a season, so this week I was able to capture some images of the new horde that descended upon us.

Sphinx moth caterpillars. Credit: Susan E. Swanberg

Sphinx moth caterpillars. Credit: Susan E. Swanberg

“Horde” is no exaggeration. If you find the right spot, you can see hundreds, even thousands of the green-yellow caterpillars eating the lush foliage the monsoons bring.

A member of the moth family Sphingidae, the white-lined sphinx is often called the “hawk moth” or the “hummingbird moth” for reasons you will see in the short video below.

An important pollinator of our native plants, including the night-blooming cereus, the white-lined sphinx can often be seen at dusk, hovering around the day’s blossoms. Once the caterpillars reach maturity, they look for a place to pupate.

Penicereus greggi, the Night-Blooming Cereus. Credit: Susan E. Swanberg

Penicereus greggi, the Night-Blooming Cereus. Credit: Susan E. Swanberg

I followed many a fat caterpillar, trying to find the secret spot where the mysteries of metamorphosis would take place, but just couldn’t find any sphinx moth pupae.

Why? I discovered in my research that the caterpillars pupate underground!

Sphinx moth caterpillar with an orange head. Credit: Susan E. Swanberg

Sphinx moth caterpillars, one with an orange head and the other with a green head. Credit: Susan E. Swanberg

Examine the photos and the video accompanying this post, and you’ll see green-headed sphinx moth caterpillars and orange-headed sphinx moth caterpillars. Are they two different species of sphinx moth, or a normal variation in sphinx moth plaid?

Can you help me solve this mystery, moth experts?

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3 Responses to “Caterpillar Madness”

  1. Barbara Reply | Permalink

    Thanks for posting this. We saw many of these on our walk through our subdivision this morning. I had almost despaired of identifying it. A Google image search led me to your post.

  2. Susan E. Swanberg Reply | Permalink

    I'm glad my post helped you identify your unknown caterpillars. I still wonder about the two different versions of the caterpillars I saw. I'm sure they're both sphinx moth caterpillars, but are they the same species? Maybe an expert out there will help clear this up.

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