Carolina Sphinx Moth: All You Need to Know for Easy Identification

The Carolina sphinx moth, also known as the tobacco hornworm, is an intriguing species of moth that can be found in various parts of the United States. Known for its striking appearance, this moth has a wingspan of up to 6 inches and a heavy body, typically showcasing a mix of black, white, and zig-zagged patterns source.

These moths are primarily nocturnal creatures, active during late hours when they feed on the nectar of flowers. Their long proboscis, or mouth tube, allows them to easily hover near flowers and extract nectar for sustenance source. The Carolina sphinx moth plays a vital role in the ecosystem, contributing to pollination while also serving as prey for bats and other larger insects.

Carolina Sphinx Moth Overview

Classification and Family

The Carolina Sphinx Moth, scientifically known as Manduca sexta, belongs to the family Sphingidae, which includes hawk moths and sphinx moths. This moth species is closely related to other members of the Manduca genus, such as the tobacco hornworm and the tomato hornworm.

Size and Range

Carolina Sphinx Moths are moderately sized moths, boasting a wingspan of approximately:

  • 3.9 to 4.7 inches (100-120mm) in males
  • 4.3 to 5.1 inches (110-130mm) in females

These moths are found throughout North and Central America, from the United States to Argentina. Their range includes various regions such as:

  • Eastern United States
  • Mexico
  • Central America
  • South America

Habitat

Carolina Sphinx Moths inhabit a variety of environments, including:

  • Gardens
  • Urban areas
  • Farmlands
  • Forest edges
  • Open woodlands

In these ecosystems, the moths are important pollinators, using their long proboscises to feed on nectar from flowering plants. Their larvae, known as hornworms, mainly feed on plants from the family Solanaceae, such as tomatoes and tobacco.

Physical Characteristics

Wings and Wingspan

The Carolina Sphinx Moth, also known as Manduca sexta, has a quite impressive wingspan, typically ranging from 3.9 to 5.5 inches (10 to 14 cm). Its wings are divided into two primary sections:

  • Forewings: These are the larger and more elongated wings, which contribute to the moth’s overall aerodynamics and provide lift during flight.
  • Hindwings: Smaller in size compared to the forewings, hindwings primarily offer stability and maneuverability to the moth.

Coloration and Identification

Carolina Sphinx Moths display a unique set of color patterns, making them easily identifiable among other moth species. Some key features include:

  • Shades of gray, brown, and black that provide camouflage against tree bark
  • A stripe along their forewings, forming a distinct pattern for identification
  • Hindwings covered in bands of bright pink, black, and white
  • Abdominal segments with yellow-orange bands

Here’s a comparison table of Carolina Sphinx Moth and its close relative, the Rustic Sphinx Moth:

Feature Carolina Sphinx Moth (Manduca sexta) Rustic Sphinx Moth (Manduca rustica)
Wingspan 3.9 – 5.5 inches (10 – 14 cm) 3.5 – 6 inches (8.9 – 15.2 cm)
Forewing Color Gray, brown, with a stripe Mottled, zig-zagged black and white
Hindwing Color Pink, black, and white bands Black patches with pale spots

By keeping these physical characteristics in mind and using the comparison table above, you can easily identify and distinguish Carolina Sphinx Moths from other moth species in their natural habitat.

Life Cycle and Development

Eggs

The Carolina sphinx moth starts its life cycle as eggs, which are laid by the female moth on host plants, usually on the underside of the leaves. These eggs are small, round, and pale green in color. They typically hatch within a week.

Larvae

Once hatched, the larvae, or caterpillars, emerge and begin feeding on the leaves of the host plants. The caterpillars are known for their distinct appearance:

  • Green or brown body
  • White diagonal stripes
  • Red horn on their rear end

Throughout their development, the caterpillars will molt several times, growing larger with each stage.

Pupation

After the final stage of larval growth, the caterpillars will enter the pupation stage, where they form a pupa. During this phase:

  • Caterpillars stop feeding
  • They attach themselves to a solid surface
  • A protective cocoon is formed around them

The pupation stage generally lasts for about 2-3 weeks, but can vary based on environmental factors.

Adult Moth

Once the pupation process is complete, the adult Carolina sphinx moth emerges. Key features of the adult moth include:

  • A wingspan ranging from 3-4 inches
  • Mottled gray and brown coloring
  • Long proboscis for feeding on nectar
Stage Duration Notable Features
Egg Up to 1 week Pale green, laid on host plants
Larvae Several weeks Striped body, red horn
Pupation 2-3 weeks Protective cocoon, no feeding
Adult Moth Varies Wingspan 3-4 inches, long proboscis

The life cycle of the Carolina sphinx moth is an impressive process. From a small egg to a striking adult moth, each stage plays its role in the development of these fascinating creatures.

Behavior and Diet

Activity and Resting

Carolina Sphinx moths are more active during the night. When they rest, they usually hide on the undersides of leaves.

Feeding Habits

Carolina Sphinx moths feed on nectar. As larvae, they are known as Tobacco hornworms, which feed on tomato, potato, and tobacco plants.

Examples of nectar food sources for adult Carolina Sphinx moths:

  • Flowers with long tubes

Flight Patterns

The flight patterns of these moths include hovering near flowers, displaying excellent agility.

Characteristic features of Carolina Sphinx moth flight:

  • Hovering near flowers
  • Long and agile flight

Comparison table between adult Carolina Sphinx moth and Tobacco hornworm:

Feature Adult Carolina Sphinx Moth Tobacco Hornworm (Larva)
Activity time Nighttime Daytime
Food source Nectar Tomato, potato, and tobacco plants
Flight Hovering, agile Not applicable (crawling)

In summary, Carolina Sphinx moths exhibit nocturnal behavior, feed on nectar as adults and have agile flight patterns. Their larvae, known as Tobacco hornworms, feed on plants from the nightshade family such as tomato, potato, and tobacco.

Host Plants and Predation

Nightshade Family

The Carolina Sphinx Moth, also known as the tobacco hornworm, is part of the Sphingidae family and commonly found on host plants within the nightshade family, Solanaceae. Examples of plants in this family include:

  • Tobacco
  • Tomatoes
  • Potatoes
  • Peppers

These plants provide a vital source of nutrition for the caterpillars, often leading to their status as garden pests.

Predators and Threats

Carolina Sphinx Moths face various predators and threats during their life stages:

  • Birds
  • Small mammals
  • Parasitic wasps

Birds and small mammals prey on both moth larvae and adult moths. Some common avian predators include:

  • Chickadees
  • Warblers
  • Bluebirds

Parasitic wasps pose a significant threat to Carolina Sphinx Moth caterpillars as they lay eggs inside the larvae. Once the eggs hatch, the wasp larvae consume the host caterpillar from the inside out, eventually killing it.

Carolina Sphinx Moth
Host Plants Nightshade Family
Predators Birds, Mammals, Wasps
Garden Status Pest

Significance and Control

Economic Importance

The Carolina sphinx moth, also known as the tobacco hornworm, is an economically significant pest in agriculture. This moth’s larvae, the tobacco and tomato hornworms, are known to cause significant damage to crops, primarily by defoliating tomato plants and damaging fruit in gardens.

Impact on Agriculture

Carolina sphinx moths’ larvae have a strong preference for plants in the nightshade family, Solanaceae, which includes popular crops such as tomatoes, potatoes, and tobacco. These pests can result in drastic yield loss for farmers and gardeners dealing with infestations. For example, tobacco hornworms cause:

  • Defoliation of plants
  • Damage to tomato fruit

Management Techniques

Several management techniques can be employed to deal with these pests, including:

  • Chemical control: Using insecticides approved by local authorities to combat the larvae population. However, this method may impact beneficial organisms and can pose a risk to human health if not properly handled.
  • Biological control: Introducing natural predators or parasites, such as wasps and lady beetles, can help reduce the Carolina sphinx moth population.
  • Cultural control: Proper sanitation, including removal of crop debris and weeds, can reduce breeding sites for these pests.
Management Technique Pros Cons
Chemical control Effective in reducing larvae population May impact beneficial organisms
Risk to human health if mishandled
Biological control Environmental friendly Requires proper timing and monitoring
Cultural control Cost-effective Time-consuming

It is crucial to monitor Carolina sphinx moth populations and implement management techniques as needed to minimize the negative impact on agriculture and ensure healthy crop growth.

Related Species and Moths

Hummingbird Clearwing Moth

The Hummingbird Clearwing Moth is a fascinating species of sphinx moth known for its resemblance to hummingbirds. Found in various regions, including parts of the United States and Canada, they often hover around flowers like hummingbirds feeding on nectar. Some key features of Hummingbird Clearwing Moths are:

  • Rapid wing movement
  • Clear patches on their wings
  • Colors vary from green to brown, with a white band on their abdomen

Tersa Sphinx Moth

The Tersa Sphinx Moth is another intriguing species of sphinx moth, characterized by its large size with a wingspan between 2 3/8 to 31/8 inches. The forewings are grayish-brown with a distinct pale line. The abdomen exhibits a brown to cinnamon hue. Unlike the Hummingbird Clearwing, Tersa Sphinx Moths have large black patches and contrasting pale spots on their hind wings.

Comparison Table

Feature Hummingbird Clearwing Moth Tersa Sphinx Moth
Size (wingspan) Small to medium 2 3/8 – 3 1/8 inches
Wing appearance Clear patches Black patches
Color Green/brown with white band Grayish-brown
Hovering around flowers Yes No

Both the Hummingbird Clearwing and Tersa Sphinx Moths are fascinating species of sphinx moths worth exploring for those interested in moths and butterflies. These two species showcase the diversity and unique qualities of different types of sphinx moths found across various regions.

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about these insects. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Letter 1 – Carolina Sphinx Caterpillar

 

HUGE … caterpillar??
Location: Phoenix, AZ
November 7, 2011 9:23 pm
This was on the leaves of my Blue Potato Bush in Phoenix, AZ. It’s as thick and as long as my thumb. Can you tell me what it is? I assume it will eat my bush, but that’s nature….I won’t kill it!
Signature: Suzy

Carolina Sphinx Caterpillar

Dear Suzy,
There are two large caterpillars that feed on the leaves of tomato plants and relatives in the nightshade family including potato.  We just posted a photo of one species, the Five Spotted Hawkmoth or Tomato Hornworm.  You have submitted a photo of the other species, the Carolina Sphinx or Tobacco Hornworm,
Manduca sexta.

Thank you so much, you are so quick!  I looked it up to see what the caterpillar turns into.  Very interesting information.  One more question, if you don’t mind.  What are the chances I would find that caterpillar in a cocoon and be able to see it emerge?  I only have the one plant, so it doesn’t seem to me the caterpillar could go very far – or would want to…..
Suzy
PS  I am so thankful for the information I get from ‘What’s that bug’ that I am making a donation.  Thank you again!

Hi again Suzy,
This caterpillar does not spin a cocoon.  It buries itself in the ground and molts into a naked pupa like this image.

Letter 2 – Carolina Sphinx Eggs

 

Subject: Green insect eggs
Location: Northern Virginia
August 16, 2015 4:48 am
What insect do you think laid these eggs? We found them in Northern Virginia, maybe 10 miles from the Washington Dulles airport. My son is extremely interested in spiders and insects. He (6 years old) can identify stinkbug eggs.
Signature: John Pfaff

Carolina Sphinx eggs on Datura
Carolina Sphinx eggs on Datura

Dear John,
When it comes to identifying immature insect stages for plant feeding species, it is very helpful to know the plant upon which the insects were found.  This leaf looks like it belongs to Jimsonweed or
Datura, and several Hornworms from the genus Manduca feed on Solanaceous plants.  We believe these eggs are those of a Carolina Sphinx, and that they will hatch into Tobacco Hornworms, a species known to feed on the leaves of tomatoes and peppers as well, though Datura and Nightshade are native plant hosts for the species.  This image from BugGuide supports our identification.

Carolina Sphinx Eggs
Carolina Sphinx Eggs

Thanks so much!!  My son is going to be a huge fan of your website.
John

Letter 3 – Carolina Sphinx Moth

 

night bug
We thought it may be a hummingbird hawk moth but tail is more like a hornet not a lobster.
Darlene Goehringer

Hi Darlene,
This is another species of Sphinx Moth or Hawk Moth, the Carolina Sphinx Moth, Manduca sexta. The caterpillars are often found on tomatoes and it is also called the Tobacco Sphinx.

Letter 4 – Carolina Sphinx

 

manduca sexta
Hey, thanks for the hours of entertainment. I enjoyed the letters as much as the photos. I found this moth on the stairway of my condo in Palm Springs on 9/13/07 and was startled by his size. I looked at every moth photo you have, in 9 different menus, until I found the manduca sexta (tobacco sphinx) in the moth sphinx index. I also visited the Butterflies and Moths of N. A. site as you suggested and this guy could also be the occult sphinx, or the five spotted hawkmoth. Since you seem to have only one or two photos of them (and a hundred black witches) I thought you could use another. The wing span as pictured here is about 3 inches across. Thanks for re-awakening my sense of wonder.
Cynthia

Hi Cynthia,
You are correct. This is Manduca sexta, commonly called the Carolina Sphinx and, because of the caterpillar, Tobacco Hornworm.

Letter 5 – Carolina Sphinx

 

What’s that moth?
August 6, 2009
We have identified several moths this past week feeding on our four o’clocks, (well, WTB did). Achemon, clear wing hummingbird, and banded sphinx. What is this moth? Thanks and keep up the good work, love your site!
Jennifer & Gary
Lakeland, FL

Carolina Sphinx
Carolina Sphinx

Hi Jennifer and Gary,
If you researched the moths in your garden on our site, you did the identification.  This is a Carolina Sphinx, Manduca sexta, one of two species (the other being the Tobacco Sphinx, Manduca quinquemaculata) with caterpillars that feed on Tomato plant leaves.  These caterpillars are sometimes called Tomato Hornworms.  You may read more about your Carolina Sphinx on Bill Oehlke’s awesome website.

Letter 6 – Carolina Sphinx

 

Hummingbird Moth
Location:  Solsberry,Indiana
August 24, 2010 9:10 pm
Hi,
I thought you might like the these images. Pretty sure these are hummingbird moths though I’m not certain what type. These are fun to watch in the evening…beautiful.
Love your website!
Holly Sciscoe

Carolina Sphinx

Hi Holly,
This is a Sphinx Moth or Hawkmoth in the family Sphingidae, the members of which are frequently mistaken for hummingbirds.  This is one of two species in the genus
Manduca.  We believe it is the Carolina Sphinx, Manduca sexta (see Bill Oehlke’s website), though it might be the Five Spotted Hawkmoth, Manduca quinquemaculata, also on Bill Oehlke’s website.  Both species have caterpillars that feed on the leaves of tomato plants.  Your photos are awesome and quite detailed action images.

Carolina Sphinx

Letter 7 – Carolina Sphinx

 

scary giant moth
Location: san diego … my dresser
August 23, 2011 12:14 am
Dear Bugman,
What I consider to be a very large moth flew into my room tonight and seems to have no immediate plans to leave. This is unfortunate because I cannot sleep with him over on my dresser… staring at me. I live in San Diego, and it is mid-October. Knowing what kind of moth he is won’t get him out of my room, but it will help with the details of my Facebook posts about this little intruder.
Signature: sandi

Carolina Sphinx

Hi Sandi,
Though California is far from the tobacco growing Carolinas, you are still within the range of
Manduca sexta, also commonly called the Carolina Sphinx or Tobacco Hornworm for the caterpillar.  In California, the large green caterpillars with a caudal horn are frequently found feeding on the leaves of cultivated tomato plants, though they also feed on native jimsonweed and other members of the nighshade family.  You can read additional information on the Carolina Sphinx on the Sphingidae of the Americas website.  The distinctively marked abdomen with six pairs of yellow spots is not visible in your photograph.  P.S.  It is currently August.  Is this an old event?


Ha! I could try to say the October/August issue was because of autocorrect on my phone, but nope. I’m just completely confused about the month. I guess they both start with a soft “o” sound kind of. The picture was taken last night, mid-August.  🙂   I wanted to ask the moth to spread his wings for the picture, so I could see his abdomen, but he kind of freaked me out, so I passed. He finally flew back out the door at about 2:30am.  He seemed to fly from wall to another, not gracefully . . .like headfirst, top speed into one wall, then another. Poor guy had to have a concussion by the time he left.
Thanks for getting back to me so quickly!
Sandi

Sphinx Moths are powerful fliers, fast and with endurance, and quite beautiful in flight when they are not obstructed.   Apparently they are not good at figuring mazes.

Letter 8 – Carolina Sphinx

 

Look what flew into our kitchen this evening…
Location: Louisville, CO
August 26, 2011 11:32 pm
Hi, Daniel.
We had a visitor this evening. The wing span was about 5”. It settled down long enough for me to take a picture with my camera phone, and then Lisa put it back outside safely.
Our next door neighbor has been gifting us with their overflowing bounty of incredibly delicious tomatoes. Lisa suspects that the caterpillar it came from was one that feeds on tomatoes and that it is a hawk moth of some sort.
Signature: Daniel

Carolina Sphinx

Good Morning Daniel,
Lisa is correct.  This is
Manduca sexta, and its common name, Carolina Sphinx, is deceptive because it ranges well beyond the Carolinas.  To further add to the confusion, the larva of the Carolina Sphinx is commonly called the Tobacco Hornworm, though it is found on tomato plants and other native solanaceous plants like Jimsonweed and Nightshade outside of tobacco country.  You can read more about the Carolina Sphinx on the Sphingidae of the Americas website.  Another similar looking member of the genus is Manduca quinquemaculata, and its caterpillar is known as the Tomato Hornworm.  They are so similar in both appearance and habits to the Tobacco Hornworm that many home gardeners do not distinguish between the two species.

Letter 9 – Carolina Sphinx

 

Moth ID
Location: London Ohio
August 31, 2011 8:40 am
Any idea what this guy is called? I’ve done some searching but am not getting anywhere. found it on my pepper plants in central ohio.
Signature: MC

Carolina Sphinx

Hi MC,
This is
Manduca sexta, the Carolina Sphinx or Six Spotted Hawkmoth, and the caterpillar, called the Tobacco Hornworm, is frequently found feeding on tomato plants.

Letter 10 – Carolina Sphinx

 

Moth found on Porch
Location: Just south of Charlotte, NC
January 5, 2012 11:19 pm
I found this moth on my porch and I didn’t know what sort it is. It was fairly large nearly 2 inches long.
Signature: Karen Oliver-Paull

Carolina Sphinx

Hi Karen,
Though its range is not limited to the Carolinas, this impressive moth is known as the Carolina Sphinx.  The caterpillar is frequently found feeding on the leaves of tomato plants and related solanaceous plants, and it is called the Tobacco Hornworm.  You can read more about the Carolina Sphinx on the Sphingidae of the Americas website.

Letter 11 – Waved Sphinx, not Carolina Sphinx

 

Central Texas moth!
Location: San Marcos, Texas
March 27, 2012 4:46 pm
Hey bugman! I found this moth today, March 27, outside of my apartment in San Marcos. It reminded me a convolvulus hawk moth that I found once in the Amarillo area, but when I looked at the photos of that one, the patterns on the wings were quite different. I did some searching and thought it looked a lot like an underwing moth, but when I picked it up, it stretched out its wings and there was no bright coloring anywhere. So, what do you think? Thanks a bunch!
Signature: Brittani Wray

Carolina Sphinx

Hi Brittani,
Your moth reminds you of the Convolvulus Hawkmoth because it is in the same family, Sphingidae, the Hawkmoths or Sphinx Moths.  Your moth is a Carolina Sphinx,
Manduca sexta, a common species found across much of North America.  You can read more about the Carolina Sphinx on BugGuide and on the Sphingidae of the Americas website.  The Caterpillars are known as Tobacco Hornworms and they feed on the leaves of tomatoes, tobacco and related plants in the nightshade family.

Correction:  July 10, 2012
We just noticed we incorrectly identified this Sphinx.  It is a Waved Sphinx, Ceratomia undulosa, not a Carolina Sphinx.  This can be verified by comparing this moth to photos on Sphingidae of the Americas.

Letter 12 – Waved Sphinx, not Carolina Sphinx

 

Subject: Carolina Sphinx Moth This Time!
Location: New Hampshire
July 6, 2012 4:32 pm
Hey again Bugman!
This is becoming a trend with me, but I know I was excited to find this little gal in the same stairwell I rescued the Small Eyed Sphinx from a few weeks ago. A quick perusal of your archives leads me to believe she’s a Carolina Sphinx and she’s certainly the biggest moth I’ve yet to come face to face with! Now I’m hoping a Luna or Polyphemus comes to visit next.
Signature: Black Zarak

Waved Sphinx

Dear Black Zarak,
Congratulations on your newest moth sighting, and we agree that it is a Carolina Sphinx by comparing your image to images on the Sphingidae of the Americas website.  If you are interested, you should see if there are any National Moth Week events in your area
.

Correction:  This is a Waved Sphinx, not Carolina Sphinx.
Sometimes in an effort to respond to as many letters as possible, we make mistakes.  Thanks to a comment from Ryan, we have made the correction.  See Sphingidae of the Americas for more information on the Waved Sphinx.

Letter 13 – Carolina Sphinx

 

Subject: Help!!! What is this??
Location: Coto De Caza, Ca
October 16, 2013 11:19 am
Dear Bugman,
I was out gardening, planting some new tomatoes and this creature was hanging on to one of the leaves. He’s still there! Btw, he’s the size of a small bird. Any idea what he is? Do I have the worlds largest moth in my garden? And how do I make him leave?
Sincerely,
Angela
Signature: Angela (scared of most things creepy & crawly)

Carolina Sphinx
Carolina Sphinx

Dear Angela,
This gorgeous moth is a Carolina Sphinx, and she is probably laying eggs on the tomato plant, where her progeny, Tobacco Hornworms, will feed on the leaves and grow very large.  The Tobacco Hornworm, or Tomato Bug, is a very impressive caterpillar with a caudal horn.  See the Sphingidae of the Americas for additional information.

Letter 14 – Carolina Sphinx

 

Subject: Is this a….
Location: California
October 20, 2013 4:30 pm
I am not certain but is this a Carolina Sphinx moth? One night a few months back, we saw these strange moths hovering over our Jasmine plants like hummingbirds at dusk, and we never saw a moth like that before in southern California. Just today, we saw the first one since those few months ago. This moth didn’t seem to wanna fly so I decided to take some pictures of me holding it before putting it on a tree.
Signature: Brittany

Carolina Sphinx
Carolina Sphinx

Hi Brittany,
We agree that this is a Carolina Sphinx,
Manduca sexta.  Perhaps you or a neighbor grows tomatoes.  The leaves of tomatoes are a preferred host plant for the larvae of the Carolina Sphinx.

Letter 15 – Carolina Sphinx Parasitized by Braconids

 

Subject: What’s on the caterpillar?
Location: Southeastern Virginia
July 21, 2014 12:33 pm
A friend has a caterpillar in her garden and she found it like this today. It was fine a few days ago…What in the world is going on with it?
Signature: Crystal

Carolina Sphinx Before
Carolina Sphinx Before

Dear Crystal,
This caterpillar is a Carolina Sphinx or Tobacco Hornworm,
Manduca sexta, and they are frequently found feeding on tomato plants and related plants in the garden.  Your second image documents the results of a parasitization by a Braconid Wasp, Cotesia congregata.  The female Braconid lays her eggs inside the caterpillar using an ovipositor and the larval wasps develop inside the caterpillarfeeding on the caterpiller beneath its skin.  When the larvae mature, the make their way to the surface and spin cocoons, and that is what is shown in the second image.  The caterpillar will not live to maturity even if the cocoons are removed.  See BugGuide for additional information on the Braconid.

Carolina Sphinx parasitized by Braconids
Carolina Sphinx parasitized by Braconids

Letter 16 – Carolina Sphinx

 

Subject:  Carolina Sphinx
Location:  Mount Washington, Los Angeles, California
July 8, 2016
We stepped out onto the porch after sunset and saw a huge shadow cast by a flying critter, and when it finally landed, we were thrilled to see this Carolina Sphinx.  We moved it to the primrose patch and away from the disorienting porch light.  Unlike some home gardeners, we generally allow the larval Tobacco Hornworms to continue munching on tomato leaves, but we haven’t seen any yet this year.

Carolina Sphinx
Carolina Sphinx

Letter 17 – Carolina Sphinx

 

Subject: Sphinx Moth?
Location: Rancho Cucamonga, CA
August 14, 2016 8:43 am
Can you identify this huge moth that was hanging out on a moving blanket in our backyard yesterday afternoon? He was at least three inches in length with huge dark eyes and sported a “furry” coat that resembled a rabbit’s. Being that it’s late summer in SoCal, is this what those big, green tomato hornworms morph into?
Thanks!
Signature: Suzanne

Carolina Sphinx
Carolina Sphinx

Dear Suzanne,
You are correct.  This is a Carolina Sphinx,
Manduca sexta, the adult form of the Tobacco Hornworm, the large caterpillars that feed on the leaves of cultivated tomato plants.

Letter 18 – Carolina Sphinx

 

Subject: What’s this moth?
Location: Sumner Co, KS, USA
September 20, 2016 1:43 pm
We live in Kansas, and found this moth in our garage. It really really looks like the Blackburn’s Sphinx Moth, but how can that be since we live in Kansas?!
Signature: Sincerely

Carolina Sphinx
Carolina Sphinx

According to Sphingidae of the Americas, Blackburn’s Sphinx, Manduca blackburni, was:  “Previously known from all the main islands, [but] this rare endemic Hawaiian sphinx moth is now known only from Maui.”  Your moth, the Carolina Sphinx, Manduca sexta, looks similar to Blackburn’s Sphinx because it is in the same genus.  Because its caterpillar, the Tobacco Hornworm, feeds on tomato plants, the Carolina Sphinx is relatively common across North America.  You can read more about the Carolina Sphinx on Sphingidae of the Americas.

Letter 19 – Carolina Sphinx

 

Subject: Aggressive Moth?
Location: West Los Angeles
October 8, 2016 6:02 pm
Hi Bugman,
I thought this was just a large moth, but when I got close to touching it, it spread it’s wings and arched it’s back. As I got closer to take the pictures. it arched it’s back more as if it were telling me to stay away.
Can you identify it?
Thx,
Signature: Jeff Bremer

Carolina Sphinx
Carolina Sphinx

Dear Jeff,
This is one of two species in the genus
Manduca, either the Carolina Sphinx (see BugGuide) or the Five Spotted Hawkmoth (see BugGuide), and as far as you are concerned, we suspect the exact species is not critical.  We believe it is the Carolina Sphinx.  Both have caterpillars that feed on the leaves of tomato plants and other related plants in the nightshade family, including pepper and eggplant which are cultivated, and plants like deadly nightshade and jimsonweed that are native plants that are toxic to humans.  Neither Manduca species is a threat to humans, unless a moth flies in the face of someone driving a vehicle or climbing a ladder, potentially causing a serious accident by startling that human into wrecking the vehicle or falling off the ladder.  Adult moths are not capable of biting.

Carolina Sphinx
Carolina Sphinx

 

Letter 20 – Carolina Sphinx

 

Subject:  Moth
Geographic location of the bug:  Michigan
Date: 08/03/2019
Time: 11:23 AM EDT
Your letter to the bugman:  What kind of moth is this? He was about 4 inches
How you want your letter signed:  Ryan

Carolina Sphinx

Dear Ryan,
This is a Carolina Sphinx, and its caterpillar, the Tobacco Hornworm, is familiar to many home gardeners who grow tomatoes.

Letter 21 – Possibly Carolina Sphinx on lime tree in Los Angeles

 

Subject:  Big bug, hot for limes
Geographic location of the bug:  Los Angeles, California
Date: 07/19/2021
Time: 06:47 PM EDT
Your letter to the bugman:  I found this fella on my lime tree, just cruising around.
Taken June 7th.
How you want your letter signed:  Bug curious

Hornworm looks like Carolina Sphinx

Dear Bug curious,
This is a Hornworm, the caterpillar of a Sphinx Moth in the Sphingidae family, and it appears to be a Carolina Sphinx which is pictured on BugGuide.  The Carolina Sphinx feeds on the leaves of tomato, pepper and other solanaceous plants and not the leaves of a lime tree.  Do you have tomatoes or other related plants nearby?

Hi Daniel.
The plants nearby are a laurel tree, a rosemary plant, and a Portuguese blood orange tree.
About 50 feet away are some habanero plants, so maybe that’s it.
No tomatoes.
Basil? That’s not far away either, about 50 feet in another direction.
Steve

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about these insects. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Letter 1 – Carolina Sphinx Caterpillar

 

HUGE … caterpillar??
Location: Phoenix, AZ
November 7, 2011 9:23 pm
This was on the leaves of my Blue Potato Bush in Phoenix, AZ. It’s as thick and as long as my thumb. Can you tell me what it is? I assume it will eat my bush, but that’s nature….I won’t kill it!
Signature: Suzy

Carolina Sphinx Caterpillar

Dear Suzy,
There are two large caterpillars that feed on the leaves of tomato plants and relatives in the nightshade family including potato.  We just posted a photo of one species, the Five Spotted Hawkmoth or Tomato Hornworm.  You have submitted a photo of the other species, the Carolina Sphinx or Tobacco Hornworm,
Manduca sexta.

Thank you so much, you are so quick!  I looked it up to see what the caterpillar turns into.  Very interesting information.  One more question, if you don’t mind.  What are the chances I would find that caterpillar in a cocoon and be able to see it emerge?  I only have the one plant, so it doesn’t seem to me the caterpillar could go very far – or would want to…..
Suzy
PS  I am so thankful for the information I get from ‘What’s that bug’ that I am making a donation.  Thank you again!

Hi again Suzy,
This caterpillar does not spin a cocoon.  It buries itself in the ground and molts into a naked pupa like this image.

Letter 2 – Carolina Sphinx Eggs

 

Subject: Green insect eggs
Location: Northern Virginia
August 16, 2015 4:48 am
What insect do you think laid these eggs? We found them in Northern Virginia, maybe 10 miles from the Washington Dulles airport. My son is extremely interested in spiders and insects. He (6 years old) can identify stinkbug eggs.
Signature: John Pfaff

Carolina Sphinx eggs on Datura
Carolina Sphinx eggs on Datura

Dear John,
When it comes to identifying immature insect stages for plant feeding species, it is very helpful to know the plant upon which the insects were found.  This leaf looks like it belongs to Jimsonweed or
Datura, and several Hornworms from the genus Manduca feed on Solanaceous plants.  We believe these eggs are those of a Carolina Sphinx, and that they will hatch into Tobacco Hornworms, a species known to feed on the leaves of tomatoes and peppers as well, though Datura and Nightshade are native plant hosts for the species.  This image from BugGuide supports our identification.

Carolina Sphinx Eggs
Carolina Sphinx Eggs

Thanks so much!!  My son is going to be a huge fan of your website.
John

Letter 3 – Carolina Sphinx Moth

 

night bug
We thought it may be a hummingbird hawk moth but tail is more like a hornet not a lobster.
Darlene Goehringer

Hi Darlene,
This is another species of Sphinx Moth or Hawk Moth, the Carolina Sphinx Moth, Manduca sexta. The caterpillars are often found on tomatoes and it is also called the Tobacco Sphinx.

Letter 4 – Carolina Sphinx

 

manduca sexta
Hey, thanks for the hours of entertainment. I enjoyed the letters as much as the photos. I found this moth on the stairway of my condo in Palm Springs on 9/13/07 and was startled by his size. I looked at every moth photo you have, in 9 different menus, until I found the manduca sexta (tobacco sphinx) in the moth sphinx index. I also visited the Butterflies and Moths of N. A. site as you suggested and this guy could also be the occult sphinx, or the five spotted hawkmoth. Since you seem to have only one or two photos of them (and a hundred black witches) I thought you could use another. The wing span as pictured here is about 3 inches across. Thanks for re-awakening my sense of wonder.
Cynthia

Hi Cynthia,
You are correct. This is Manduca sexta, commonly called the Carolina Sphinx and, because of the caterpillar, Tobacco Hornworm.

Letter 5 – Carolina Sphinx

 

What’s that moth?
August 6, 2009
We have identified several moths this past week feeding on our four o’clocks, (well, WTB did). Achemon, clear wing hummingbird, and banded sphinx. What is this moth? Thanks and keep up the good work, love your site!
Jennifer & Gary
Lakeland, FL

Carolina Sphinx
Carolina Sphinx

Hi Jennifer and Gary,
If you researched the moths in your garden on our site, you did the identification.  This is a Carolina Sphinx, Manduca sexta, one of two species (the other being the Tobacco Sphinx, Manduca quinquemaculata) with caterpillars that feed on Tomato plant leaves.  These caterpillars are sometimes called Tomato Hornworms.  You may read more about your Carolina Sphinx on Bill Oehlke’s awesome website.

Letter 6 – Carolina Sphinx

 

Hummingbird Moth
Location:  Solsberry,Indiana
August 24, 2010 9:10 pm
Hi,
I thought you might like the these images. Pretty sure these are hummingbird moths though I’m not certain what type. These are fun to watch in the evening…beautiful.
Love your website!
Holly Sciscoe

Carolina Sphinx

Hi Holly,
This is a Sphinx Moth or Hawkmoth in the family Sphingidae, the members of which are frequently mistaken for hummingbirds.  This is one of two species in the genus
Manduca.  We believe it is the Carolina Sphinx, Manduca sexta (see Bill Oehlke’s website), though it might be the Five Spotted Hawkmoth, Manduca quinquemaculata, also on Bill Oehlke’s website.  Both species have caterpillars that feed on the leaves of tomato plants.  Your photos are awesome and quite detailed action images.

Carolina Sphinx

Letter 7 – Carolina Sphinx

 

scary giant moth
Location: san diego … my dresser
August 23, 2011 12:14 am
Dear Bugman,
What I consider to be a very large moth flew into my room tonight and seems to have no immediate plans to leave. This is unfortunate because I cannot sleep with him over on my dresser… staring at me. I live in San Diego, and it is mid-October. Knowing what kind of moth he is won’t get him out of my room, but it will help with the details of my Facebook posts about this little intruder.
Signature: sandi

Carolina Sphinx

Hi Sandi,
Though California is far from the tobacco growing Carolinas, you are still within the range of
Manduca sexta, also commonly called the Carolina Sphinx or Tobacco Hornworm for the caterpillar.  In California, the large green caterpillars with a caudal horn are frequently found feeding on the leaves of cultivated tomato plants, though they also feed on native jimsonweed and other members of the nighshade family.  You can read additional information on the Carolina Sphinx on the Sphingidae of the Americas website.  The distinctively marked abdomen with six pairs of yellow spots is not visible in your photograph.  P.S.  It is currently August.  Is this an old event?


Ha! I could try to say the October/August issue was because of autocorrect on my phone, but nope. I’m just completely confused about the month. I guess they both start with a soft “o” sound kind of. The picture was taken last night, mid-August.  🙂   I wanted to ask the moth to spread his wings for the picture, so I could see his abdomen, but he kind of freaked me out, so I passed. He finally flew back out the door at about 2:30am.  He seemed to fly from wall to another, not gracefully . . .like headfirst, top speed into one wall, then another. Poor guy had to have a concussion by the time he left.
Thanks for getting back to me so quickly!
Sandi

Sphinx Moths are powerful fliers, fast and with endurance, and quite beautiful in flight when they are not obstructed.   Apparently they are not good at figuring mazes.

Letter 8 – Carolina Sphinx

 

Look what flew into our kitchen this evening…
Location: Louisville, CO
August 26, 2011 11:32 pm
Hi, Daniel.
We had a visitor this evening. The wing span was about 5”. It settled down long enough for me to take a picture with my camera phone, and then Lisa put it back outside safely.
Our next door neighbor has been gifting us with their overflowing bounty of incredibly delicious tomatoes. Lisa suspects that the caterpillar it came from was one that feeds on tomatoes and that it is a hawk moth of some sort.
Signature: Daniel

Carolina Sphinx

Good Morning Daniel,
Lisa is correct.  This is
Manduca sexta, and its common name, Carolina Sphinx, is deceptive because it ranges well beyond the Carolinas.  To further add to the confusion, the larva of the Carolina Sphinx is commonly called the Tobacco Hornworm, though it is found on tomato plants and other native solanaceous plants like Jimsonweed and Nightshade outside of tobacco country.  You can read more about the Carolina Sphinx on the Sphingidae of the Americas website.  Another similar looking member of the genus is Manduca quinquemaculata, and its caterpillar is known as the Tomato Hornworm.  They are so similar in both appearance and habits to the Tobacco Hornworm that many home gardeners do not distinguish between the two species.

Letter 9 – Carolina Sphinx

 

Moth ID
Location: London Ohio
August 31, 2011 8:40 am
Any idea what this guy is called? I’ve done some searching but am not getting anywhere. found it on my pepper plants in central ohio.
Signature: MC

Carolina Sphinx

Hi MC,
This is
Manduca sexta, the Carolina Sphinx or Six Spotted Hawkmoth, and the caterpillar, called the Tobacco Hornworm, is frequently found feeding on tomato plants.

Letter 10 – Carolina Sphinx

 

Moth found on Porch
Location: Just south of Charlotte, NC
January 5, 2012 11:19 pm
I found this moth on my porch and I didn’t know what sort it is. It was fairly large nearly 2 inches long.
Signature: Karen Oliver-Paull

Carolina Sphinx

Hi Karen,
Though its range is not limited to the Carolinas, this impressive moth is known as the Carolina Sphinx.  The caterpillar is frequently found feeding on the leaves of tomato plants and related solanaceous plants, and it is called the Tobacco Hornworm.  You can read more about the Carolina Sphinx on the Sphingidae of the Americas website.

Letter 11 – Waved Sphinx, not Carolina Sphinx

 

Central Texas moth!
Location: San Marcos, Texas
March 27, 2012 4:46 pm
Hey bugman! I found this moth today, March 27, outside of my apartment in San Marcos. It reminded me a convolvulus hawk moth that I found once in the Amarillo area, but when I looked at the photos of that one, the patterns on the wings were quite different. I did some searching and thought it looked a lot like an underwing moth, but when I picked it up, it stretched out its wings and there was no bright coloring anywhere. So, what do you think? Thanks a bunch!
Signature: Brittani Wray

Carolina Sphinx

Hi Brittani,
Your moth reminds you of the Convolvulus Hawkmoth because it is in the same family, Sphingidae, the Hawkmoths or Sphinx Moths.  Your moth is a Carolina Sphinx,
Manduca sexta, a common species found across much of North America.  You can read more about the Carolina Sphinx on BugGuide and on the Sphingidae of the Americas website.  The Caterpillars are known as Tobacco Hornworms and they feed on the leaves of tomatoes, tobacco and related plants in the nightshade family.

Correction:  July 10, 2012
We just noticed we incorrectly identified this Sphinx.  It is a Waved Sphinx, Ceratomia undulosa, not a Carolina Sphinx.  This can be verified by comparing this moth to photos on Sphingidae of the Americas.

Letter 12 – Waved Sphinx, not Carolina Sphinx

 

Subject: Carolina Sphinx Moth This Time!
Location: New Hampshire
July 6, 2012 4:32 pm
Hey again Bugman!
This is becoming a trend with me, but I know I was excited to find this little gal in the same stairwell I rescued the Small Eyed Sphinx from a few weeks ago. A quick perusal of your archives leads me to believe she’s a Carolina Sphinx and she’s certainly the biggest moth I’ve yet to come face to face with! Now I’m hoping a Luna or Polyphemus comes to visit next.
Signature: Black Zarak

Waved Sphinx

Dear Black Zarak,
Congratulations on your newest moth sighting, and we agree that it is a Carolina Sphinx by comparing your image to images on the Sphingidae of the Americas website.  If you are interested, you should see if there are any National Moth Week events in your area
.

Correction:  This is a Waved Sphinx, not Carolina Sphinx.
Sometimes in an effort to respond to as many letters as possible, we make mistakes.  Thanks to a comment from Ryan, we have made the correction.  See Sphingidae of the Americas for more information on the Waved Sphinx.

Letter 13 – Carolina Sphinx

 

Subject: Help!!! What is this??
Location: Coto De Caza, Ca
October 16, 2013 11:19 am
Dear Bugman,
I was out gardening, planting some new tomatoes and this creature was hanging on to one of the leaves. He’s still there! Btw, he’s the size of a small bird. Any idea what he is? Do I have the worlds largest moth in my garden? And how do I make him leave?
Sincerely,
Angela
Signature: Angela (scared of most things creepy & crawly)

Carolina Sphinx
Carolina Sphinx

Dear Angela,
This gorgeous moth is a Carolina Sphinx, and she is probably laying eggs on the tomato plant, where her progeny, Tobacco Hornworms, will feed on the leaves and grow very large.  The Tobacco Hornworm, or Tomato Bug, is a very impressive caterpillar with a caudal horn.  See the Sphingidae of the Americas for additional information.

Letter 14 – Carolina Sphinx

 

Subject: Is this a….
Location: California
October 20, 2013 4:30 pm
I am not certain but is this a Carolina Sphinx moth? One night a few months back, we saw these strange moths hovering over our Jasmine plants like hummingbirds at dusk, and we never saw a moth like that before in southern California. Just today, we saw the first one since those few months ago. This moth didn’t seem to wanna fly so I decided to take some pictures of me holding it before putting it on a tree.
Signature: Brittany

Carolina Sphinx
Carolina Sphinx

Hi Brittany,
We agree that this is a Carolina Sphinx,
Manduca sexta.  Perhaps you or a neighbor grows tomatoes.  The leaves of tomatoes are a preferred host plant for the larvae of the Carolina Sphinx.

Letter 15 – Carolina Sphinx Parasitized by Braconids

 

Subject: What’s on the caterpillar?
Location: Southeastern Virginia
July 21, 2014 12:33 pm
A friend has a caterpillar in her garden and she found it like this today. It was fine a few days ago…What in the world is going on with it?
Signature: Crystal

Carolina Sphinx Before
Carolina Sphinx Before

Dear Crystal,
This caterpillar is a Carolina Sphinx or Tobacco Hornworm,
Manduca sexta, and they are frequently found feeding on tomato plants and related plants in the garden.  Your second image documents the results of a parasitization by a Braconid Wasp, Cotesia congregata.  The female Braconid lays her eggs inside the caterpillar using an ovipositor and the larval wasps develop inside the caterpillarfeeding on the caterpiller beneath its skin.  When the larvae mature, the make their way to the surface and spin cocoons, and that is what is shown in the second image.  The caterpillar will not live to maturity even if the cocoons are removed.  See BugGuide for additional information on the Braconid.

Carolina Sphinx parasitized by Braconids
Carolina Sphinx parasitized by Braconids

Letter 16 – Carolina Sphinx

 

Subject:  Carolina Sphinx
Location:  Mount Washington, Los Angeles, California
July 8, 2016
We stepped out onto the porch after sunset and saw a huge shadow cast by a flying critter, and when it finally landed, we were thrilled to see this Carolina Sphinx.  We moved it to the primrose patch and away from the disorienting porch light.  Unlike some home gardeners, we generally allow the larval Tobacco Hornworms to continue munching on tomato leaves, but we haven’t seen any yet this year.

Carolina Sphinx
Carolina Sphinx

Letter 17 – Carolina Sphinx

 

Subject: Sphinx Moth?
Location: Rancho Cucamonga, CA
August 14, 2016 8:43 am
Can you identify this huge moth that was hanging out on a moving blanket in our backyard yesterday afternoon? He was at least three inches in length with huge dark eyes and sported a “furry” coat that resembled a rabbit’s. Being that it’s late summer in SoCal, is this what those big, green tomato hornworms morph into?
Thanks!
Signature: Suzanne

Carolina Sphinx
Carolina Sphinx

Dear Suzanne,
You are correct.  This is a Carolina Sphinx,
Manduca sexta, the adult form of the Tobacco Hornworm, the large caterpillars that feed on the leaves of cultivated tomato plants.

Letter 18 – Carolina Sphinx

 

Subject: What’s this moth?
Location: Sumner Co, KS, USA
September 20, 2016 1:43 pm
We live in Kansas, and found this moth in our garage. It really really looks like the Blackburn’s Sphinx Moth, but how can that be since we live in Kansas?!
Signature: Sincerely

Carolina Sphinx
Carolina Sphinx

According to Sphingidae of the Americas, Blackburn’s Sphinx, Manduca blackburni, was:  “Previously known from all the main islands, [but] this rare endemic Hawaiian sphinx moth is now known only from Maui.”  Your moth, the Carolina Sphinx, Manduca sexta, looks similar to Blackburn’s Sphinx because it is in the same genus.  Because its caterpillar, the Tobacco Hornworm, feeds on tomato plants, the Carolina Sphinx is relatively common across North America.  You can read more about the Carolina Sphinx on Sphingidae of the Americas.

Letter 19 – Carolina Sphinx

 

Subject: Aggressive Moth?
Location: West Los Angeles
October 8, 2016 6:02 pm
Hi Bugman,
I thought this was just a large moth, but when I got close to touching it, it spread it’s wings and arched it’s back. As I got closer to take the pictures. it arched it’s back more as if it were telling me to stay away.
Can you identify it?
Thx,
Signature: Jeff Bremer

Carolina Sphinx
Carolina Sphinx

Dear Jeff,
This is one of two species in the genus
Manduca, either the Carolina Sphinx (see BugGuide) or the Five Spotted Hawkmoth (see BugGuide), and as far as you are concerned, we suspect the exact species is not critical.  We believe it is the Carolina Sphinx.  Both have caterpillars that feed on the leaves of tomato plants and other related plants in the nightshade family, including pepper and eggplant which are cultivated, and plants like deadly nightshade and jimsonweed that are native plants that are toxic to humans.  Neither Manduca species is a threat to humans, unless a moth flies in the face of someone driving a vehicle or climbing a ladder, potentially causing a serious accident by startling that human into wrecking the vehicle or falling off the ladder.  Adult moths are not capable of biting.

Carolina Sphinx
Carolina Sphinx

 

Letter 20 – Carolina Sphinx

 

Subject:  Moth
Geographic location of the bug:  Michigan
Date: 08/03/2019
Time: 11:23 AM EDT
Your letter to the bugman:  What kind of moth is this? He was about 4 inches
How you want your letter signed:  Ryan

Carolina Sphinx

Dear Ryan,
This is a Carolina Sphinx, and its caterpillar, the Tobacco Hornworm, is familiar to many home gardeners who grow tomatoes.

Letter 21 – Possibly Carolina Sphinx on lime tree in Los Angeles

 

Subject:  Big bug, hot for limes
Geographic location of the bug:  Los Angeles, California
Date: 07/19/2021
Time: 06:47 PM EDT
Your letter to the bugman:  I found this fella on my lime tree, just cruising around.
Taken June 7th.
How you want your letter signed:  Bug curious

Hornworm looks like Carolina Sphinx

Dear Bug curious,
This is a Hornworm, the caterpillar of a Sphinx Moth in the Sphingidae family, and it appears to be a Carolina Sphinx which is pictured on BugGuide.  The Carolina Sphinx feeds on the leaves of tomato, pepper and other solanaceous plants and not the leaves of a lime tree.  Do you have tomatoes or other related plants nearby?

Hi Daniel.
The plants nearby are a laurel tree, a rosemary plant, and a Portuguese blood orange tree.
About 50 feet away are some habanero plants, so maybe that’s it.
No tomatoes.
Basil? That’s not far away either, about 50 feet in another direction.
Steve

Authors

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  • Bugman

    Bugman aka Daniel Marlos has been identifying bugs since 1999. whatsthatbug.com is his passion project and it has helped millions of readers identify the bug that has been bugging them for over two decades. You can reach out to him through our Contact Page.

  • Piyushi Dhir

    Piyushi is a nature lover, blogger and traveler at heart. She lives in beautiful Canada with her family. Piyushi is an animal lover and loves to write about all creatures.

10 thoughts on “Carolina Sphinx Moth: All You Need to Know for Easy Identification”

  1. The more southern place that Sphingidae of the Americas website says this moth lives is Costa Rica, but I took a picture of this moth in the highest point of São Paulo City in Brazil, the peak of Jaraguá.

    Reply
  2. I got one in southern Nv. for my son’s home work for 6th grade. So far all I got is it’s name ( Manduca Quinaenaculata ) I think that’s it’s name any how lol

    Reply
  3. I think our neighbors may be growing tomatoesso perhaps that’s why they are attracted. They love our Jasmine plants when they bloom, so I hope to see these beauties again. Thanks for the confirmation!

    Reply
  4. Yes, this is a nice and well grown Manduca sexta caterpillar, sitting on a Habanero twig (Capsicum chinense (= C. angulosum); I see this plant is sometimes called “orange-” or “lime-” Habanero, due to the shape and color of its fruits). The smooth and compact leaves are a good food (for caterpillars of M. sexta, which populates the region together with M. quinquemaculata). Nice wishes

    Reply

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