Yellow caterpillar in South Africa
Mon, Apr 13, 2009 at 10:43 AM
A week ago we encountered a big yellow caterpillar in our garden and we have never seen anything like it before. We spotted it walking quite fast across a slab of slate towards a flowerpot.
It is just over 90mm in length. We picked it up and placed it in the garden underneath a bush, where it climbed onto a thin twig (see photo’s – I held a South African R2 coin next to it) and stayed there for the night and following morning. Sometime during the day it disappeared not to be seen again. Could you please help us to identify this creature?
Boksburg, Gauteng Province, South Africa
This is the Caterpillar of a Death’s Head Hawkmoth, Acherontia atropos. The adult moth is pictured on the movie poster of the Academy Award winning Silence of the Lambs and played a role in the narrative of that film. Regarding the d erivation of name , a ccording to the Biodiversity of South Africa website: “The Death’s head hawk moth is so called because of the skull-like pattern on the thorax . As far as the latin name is concerned, according to Pinhey (1975) : ‘Atropos, one of the Fates, was a daughter of Nox and Erebus and was illustrated… with veiled face and a pair of scissors to cut the thread of life. This is the thoracic pattern of a mask with scissors below it. A sinister but undeserved portrait.’” Excellent information and more photos can be found on the Sphingidae of the Western Palaearctic website. The downward curve of the horn is distinctive in the mature caterpillar and is evident in one of your photographs. By needs, we are presuming you want to raise the caterpillar to maturity. Your photo of the yellow caterpillar indicates it is mature, or fifth instar and that it will soon pupate. You should continue to feed the Death’s Head Hawkmoth Caterpillar with leaves of the plant on which it was found, and provide it with several inches of loose soil, not too moist and not too dry. The caterpillar will dig into the dirt to pupate. When its metamorphosis is nearly complete, the pupa will wriggle to the surface, the skin will split, and an adult moth or imago will emerge.