ID request for a suspicious caterpillar.
April 18, 2010
Dear Madam/ Sir, good day.
I live in a Kibbutz in the Arava desert in southern Israel, and we have a minor infestation of quite large caterpillars.
Since they crawl everywhere, including the kindergarten yards, and there are unfounded rumors regarding their toxicity and possibly their being hosts for wasps (of that kind this area is known), I wanted to try to identify them.
I believe to have identified them as- Sphingidae, Hyles livornica. I don’t believe this species to be dangerous, and don’t know if it’s a wasps’ host.
Location: Hot and dry desert (56º 29′ Long. 57 º 34′ Lat., 15-35 Centigrade, Approx. 30% Humidity.)
Size: 7-8 Cm. long, about 6-7Mm thick.
Characteristics: One ‘horn’ at lower quarters, usually black tipped. No ‘Hair’, with barely visible mandibles.
Nutrition: Seems to be feeding off a single desert plant, which has sprouted abundantly in dry creek beds due to extremely unusual rainy season. (Four days of rain and several flash floods).
Behaviour: Seems to feel at ease either on its plant or on sand and hot asphalt road. They are seen to be crawling at all times of day and night.
Defense mechanism: When attacked by insects such as ants the shake their upper or entire body violently. When touched or attacked by larger animals or people they excrete a greenish sticky liquid. Small dogs and cats bite at them but don’t eat them, and do not seem to be affected.
Please assist me to calm things here- or to issue a ‘remove on sight’ warning…
Attached are photos of the caterpillars and they plant.
Many thanks in advance, Itai Bawnik.
56º 29′ Long. 57 º 34′ Lat
Your identification is correct. These are the caterpillars of the Striped Hawkmoth, Hyles livornica, which is profiled on the Sphingidae of the Western Palaearctic website. Like its counterpart in North America, the Striped Morning Sphinx, Hyles lineata which can also become quite plentiful in arid environments, the Striped Hawkmoth becomes extremely plentiful in years when conditions are right. Wet winters produce abundant desert vegetation and the population of the caterpillar and later emergent moth soars. We imagine our resident entomophage, David Gracer, is salivating at the thought of feasting on the edible abundance your photo illustrates. Many large wasps do feed on caterpillars, but believing that the caterpillars are hosts to the wasps is not an accurate assessment. Other nonstinging wasp relatives like Braconids and Chalcids do parasitize caterpillars, but these wasps are so tiny they probably escape unnoticed and they pose no threat to humans or other animals. Rather than being terrified of the harmless caterpillar of the Striped Hawkmoth, the inhabitants of your kibbutz should learn to appreciate the wonders of nature around them, and to realize that the desert dwelling caterpillars undoubtedly provided much needed nourishment in ancient times, though this probably went unrecorded.