Death’s Head Hawkmoth Caterpillar from South Africa

Gorgeous Mystery Caterpillar
Mon, Jan 12, 2009 at 8:49 AM
Greetings,
I found three of these little guys, first they were with blue patterns with black and when i took the pic they were green, i havent seen these guys before or anything like them, they also have a funny little tail, they seem very timid and slow, could you please let me know what they are exactly, and what are their needs?
Siraaj Aziz
Durban, South Africa

Death's Head Hawkmoth Caterpillar
Death

Hi Siraaj,
At first we were going to write back and just say that you found a species of Hawkmoth Caterpillar in the family Sphingidae, commonly called Hornworms because of the caudal horn.  When we googled Sphingidae Africa, we quickly found an image of a Death’s Head Hawkmoth Caterpillar, Acherontia atropos, on a Biodiversity of South Africa website and we feel pretty confident that is your species.  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 , according to the Biodiversity 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.  We would love it if you are able to provide us with images of the adult Death’s Head Hawkmoth.

Death's Head Hawkmoth Caterpillar
Death

44 thoughts on “Death’s Head Hawkmoth Caterpillar from South Africa”

  1. Hi there,
    How weird, I live in Glenwood, Durban in South Africa, and I have found also three of these colourful fat sticks on one of my outdoor pot plants. I don’t know how long they were “hanging” there, nonetheless they managed to clean the entire plant of its leaves in two days. Lucky I had a couple of these plants growing in my garden, so I could supply them with extra food. It was drizzling today and I have found them slightly covered with the soil. I don’t know if they are at the end of the cycle or just simply trying to hide from the rain. As I was pushing the stems of the harvested brunches from the other plants into the pot soil I discovered that the soil was compacted and hard. So if tomorrow they are still underground I will move the rascals from the pot to a nice soft spot in the garden. Thanks to Google I found the picture of my caterpillars on your website and after reading your articles about Death’s Head Hawkmoth Caterpillar it helped me to identify the moth responsible for the disappearance of my pot plant and filled my head with some knowledge about these common to the region moth. Thank you. By the way, I really like that yellow horn – does it have any use, and is the number 3 common occurrence -3 caterpillars together?
    Regards
    Darius.

    Reply
  2. Hi I live in southern ireland and found one of these in my garden today. Is it normal to find them in ireland and as I found it on the path I’m not sure what plant it was feeding off. So could you let me know what plants they usually eat please many thanks Laura Thomas

    Reply
    • UK Moths reports Death’s Head Hawkmoths in Britain, and they are likely immigrants from mainland Europe as Hawkmoths are very powerful fliers that are relatively long lived in the moth world. Though they are not reported to have naturalized, it is entirely possible that with global warming, that has changed. A female immigrant from mainland Europe that found its way to Ireland and found an acceptable food plant, like a potato plant in your garden, could lay eggs and produce a caterpillar. Your sighting is highly probable.

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  3. Dear Mr Bugman

    We stay in Gauteng South Africa and found what we believe to be a Death’s Head Hawkmoth this morning. I would like to send you the photo, please provide email address.

    Did you manage to get an image of the adult? My kids would love to see a picture.

    Reply
  4. We live in SW France and have just discovered one of these unusual caterpillars on one of our plants munching away.. Maybe about 6-7cm long. How can you tell the age of it?
    It’s yellow with purple/brown chevrons on its back.

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  5. Hi there, how exciting that i was able to identify this majestic worm!! It was found on a building site in Mofolo South Soweto at Our PDSA premises. I was so fascinated, it is sitting on my desk, soon to be released, wish i could have watched it turn into a moth!

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  6. I found one of those Death’s Head Hawkmoth in Edenvale last night. Very large – took a photo with my phone – not a great photo – doesnt give the caterpilar justice

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  7. found one of these in my garden a couple days ago I live in Wiltshire U.K. it is just over 4 inches long and such a bright yellow with a chevron design down its back made up with black dots.

    Reply
    • According to UK Moths: “The largest moth to appear in Britain, sporting a wingspan of up to 12 or 13cm, this is a striking species, though it is not native. Immigrants arrive from southern Europe, usually several in each year, during late summer and autumn.” Was the caterpillar found on a potato plant? UK Moths also states: “The large caterpillar feeds on potato (Solanum tuberosum), and is sometimes found in potato fields during good immigration years.”

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  8. We have found one this morning on a potplant…wish I could post the pic. Amazing specimen . We live Bellville cape town

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  9. I found one this morning travelling across my garden in Somerset West, Cape Town. Quite startling until you find out what they are from this good website! Now we just need to see the moth.

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  10. I live in Kosovo and have found one in my garden it looks big and yellow, i have seardhed on google for it and its the same

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  11. We have found a 5 inch specimen on our potato crop in Brittany France. Below the plant are many small black ‘balls’, should I get rid of these? Many thanks for any advice. Jaci Newman, Mohon, Brittany, France.

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  12. Hey Guys,
    I found a one of these caterpillars in my garden . I Was shocked at first and then was fascinated by its beauty. Never seen such a giant caterpillar.

    Sam Dias
    Kuliyapitiya, Sri Lanka

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  13. I just found 2 of these on a cape honeysuckle bush in benoni, Gauteng, South Africa. Beautiful to look at just hope my small bush will survive as they are munching their way through it!

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  14. I live in Central Florida USA and I just saw one of these here today! It says from Africa, so why is it here?

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  15. just found one of these in our garden – incredibly beautiful…. we also discovered our prunus tree appears to have died off – no leaves at all…. do you think this caterpillar could have killed it? buccleuch johannesburg south africa…. so very beautiful….. off to try to get a picture of it….

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  16. I teach Grade 3 at a school in Cape Town, South Africa and we have just found one in our garden! Needless to say, the students Nature Study books appeared very quickly and they are now happily sketching and painting this caterpillar as it is on a plant right outside our classroom! I googled a description of the caterpillar and found this website, so thank you!

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  17. Found one in Northern suburbs of Cape Town this morning. Very beautiful. Was on grass however so don’t know from which tree it came.

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  18. Easter Monday 2020 I Radiokop Johannesburg South Africa. <y Pekinese found one of these big caterpillars. Rescues it for them and then put it on a star Jasmine hedge growing outside of my garden Are the dangerous to animals??

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  19. Just found one happily finishing the remainder of our once lovely basil plant. I live in Abu Dhabi, UAE and it’s real hot and humid here.

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  20. Fourways, Johannesburg, South Africa 06/05/2022

    We spotted a beautiful looking bright yellow fat Caterpillar strolling across our lawn yesterday morning. It had a funny hornlike tail at the back. Atfer taking pictures of it, we quickly had to remove it off our lawn to the vegetation outside the yard to make sure our little foxie dog doesn’t get hold of it.

    Is this Caterpillar poisonous?

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  21. Hi, Found one of these guys???? mentioned in the posts on the grass. Not sure where he going to…We stay in Hartbeespoort/North West area in South Africa. Never seen this before

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