Photo From You: Insect Identification

About two weeks ago one of our readers submitted a photo of an insect for us to identify. Erin Mills, our resident entomologist, figured out what it was and is ready to teach us all about a new moth.

Photo Peter sent us to identify

This photo comes to us all the way from right outside of Almeria, in Southern Spain, wow! Peter was digging in his garden and dug up what he thought was a snake, or part of one. It turned out to be a moth pupa. He kept it until the moth emerged and took a picture of what he saw. The moth’s wings were not yet completely developed at the time of the picture, so I knew I had a challenge ahead of me! Also, I don’t consider myself an expert on European moths. Luckily for me, this particular moth had some very distinguishing markings and a very unique behavior.

This is called a Death’s Head Hawkmoth. It is one of 3 different species that share this common name because of the marking on the thorax that looks vaguely like a skull. All 3 species belong to the genus Acherontia, This particular species, Acherontia atropos, is perhaps the most well-known of these moths.  They are native to the Middle East and Mediterranean region of Europe. This is the only species that is found in Europe, the other two are Asian. This fact, along with the markings on it’s thorax and abdomen, made it easy to identify.  Peter made a comment that the moth didn’t appear to like being harassed and actually hissed at him. This was another dead giveaway! Death’s Head Hawkmoths actually have the unique ability to make a squeaking noise by forcing air through their proboscis to deter predators. This is probably what Peter heard and described as a hiss. This is among several other unique features and behaviors of these moths.

Tomato Hornworm (5-Spotted Hawk Moth)
Creative Commons License photo credit: the_toe_stubber

They belong to the family Sphingidae, known as sphinx moths or hawk moths. Most sphingids have a very long proboscis that helps them to reach the sweet nectar deep inside of flowers. Death’s head moths, on the other hand, have an unusually short and thick proboscis. They have to find other ways of getting food, so they are known to raid bee hives for honey at night. They have a very thick exoskeleton to help protect them from stings and they are immune to the venom. Once inside the hive, they mimic the scent of the other bees, so for the most part they can move around the hive freely. Their thick, strong proboscis is perfect for penetrating the wax covering the honey cells. They will also feed on rotting fruit and tree sap. They can be a seasonal pest to some beekeepers.

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The skull pattern on their thorax has given them somewhat of a negative reputation. Their feisty disposition doesn’t help either. The caterpillars are known to make a loud snapping noise with their mandibles and will bite if they feel threatened. The squeaking noise of the adults has been compared to a melancholy cry.  They are often associated with death and the supernatural. You may recognize them from the movie Silence of the Lambs. In the movie and book, the trademark of the murderer was to place a pupa of this moth in the mouths of his victims. That in itself makes them seem kind of creepy! Also, all 3 of their scientific names are associated with death in Greek mythology. In Europe they were thought of as harbingers of war, death, and pestilence. Their appearance was thought to be a bad omen.  Of course this is all superstition and these are not harbingers of death, but just large beautiful moths, or are they??

Thank you so much for sending in the photo Peter, and I’m glad we could identify this insect for you! It’s amazing what you can find when digging in the dirt. Remember, if you find an odd looking bug and would like to know what it is, snap a picture and send it to us at blogadmin@hmns.org. Happy bug watching!

The Sphinx Moth: A Work of Art

Today we have a special guest blog from Chad Erpelding, Assistant Professor of Art at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas.  He teaches 2D Design and Painting there.  This fall the Cockrell Butterfly Center is hosting an exhibit of some of his students’ paintings that were inspired by sphinx moths.  Here is what he has to say about the project.

The overlap between art and science is a subject rich with potential and currently being investigated by many artists.  Damien Hirst suspends animal specimens in large tanks of formaldehyde.  Olafur Eliasson, who is currently having a major survey of his work at the Dallas Museum of Art, explores weather systems and natural phenomena.  Mel Chin worked closely with a scientist in realizing his piece Revival Field, which uses plants to remove toxic metals from a polluted site.  So when Dr. William Godwin, entomologist at Stephen F. Austin State University and adjunct curator at HMNS, brought up the idea of a joint project between the Biology Department and the School of Art at SFA, I jumped at the opportunity.

We decided to organize a competition for the art students centered on sphinx moths (family Sphingidae), several members of which are found locally in Nacogdoches and throughout east Texas (see Nancy’s recent blog on these fascinating moths.)  Dr. Godwin gave a lecture on the characteristics and life cycle of sphinx moths, giving the students the base of knowledge needed to understand their subject.  From here, I stressed to the students the importance of finding the balance between accuracy towards the moths and the inventiveness that happens in the studio.  The restrictions we put on the entries were only on size and weight of the pieces themselves.  We wanted the students to have the freedom to explore their own interpretations and realize their creative impulses. 

I was thrilled with some of the pieces the students created. Carolyn Norton, a graduate student from Lufkin, won first place for her piece “Sonic Defense,” an ink drawing that follows the paths of a bat and moth in battle, including an explosion of scales – a trick that moths do to fool their predators mid-air. 

Margaret Pledger, a senior from Brenham, received second place for her “Pupa Ring,” a copper ring based loosely on the shapes of sphinx moth pupae.  Chad Hines, a graduate student from Temple, received third place for his “Sphingidae,” a drawing that simultaneously explores the patterns of the moths and the joys of making marks on paper. 

The truly fascinating part of this project for me was to see the many different directions that the artists took.  You never know from where inspiration will come.  While some of the students looked at the patterns and shapes of the moths, others were interested in their habits or specific characteristics.  A few explored broader cultural connections, using the moths as a metaphor for the human experience.  Whatever the source, I think this was a great opportunity for both the science and art communities to see how our fields can interact.  It encourages us to continue to see the world in new and awe-inspiring ways.

Please be sure to stop and take a look at these interesting works of art on your next visit to the Butterfly Center.  They are in the lower level (just around the corner from the mosquito display) and will remain on display until March, 2009.

Sphinx Moth art, on display in the lower level
of the Cockrell Butterfly Center.

Hummingbirds of the Night

A few nights ago I saw what I thought was a hummingbird – out way past its bedtime – whirring around the fragrant, long-tubed blooms of the Rangoon creeper in my back yard.  As I watched, several more of these curfew-breakers appeared, working the flowers all up and down the fence.  I soon realized that these were not in fact hummingbirds, but were their nocturnal analogs:  hawk moths or sphinx moths.

Pandorus Sphinx Moth
Creative Commons License photo credit: August Norman
 Pandorus sphinx

Talk about convergence!  If they hadn’t been flying at night – and there are some day-flying sphinx moths, by the way – I would have been hard put to tell they weren’t ruby-throated hummers (the most common hummingbird species in our area).  The sphinx moth in question (probably the five-spotted hawkmoth, Manduca quinquemaculata) is about the same size and shape as a ruby-throat, with a bullet-shaped, streamlined body, and has exactly the same behavior.  The powerful wings of both hummers and sphinx moths beat so swiftly (up to 50 or so beats per second) that they are just a blur in flight.  Both can hover up, down, back and forth, helicopter-like.  Instead of a hummingbird’s long bill, sphinx moths have a long tongue or proboscis, kept rolled up when not in use and extended when reaching for nectar at the base of a long-tubed flower. 

Rangoon creeper - flowers are first white, turning red the next morning

Rangoon creeper - flowers are first white, turning red the next morning

Both hummers and sphinx moths are important pollinators, and certain plants have evolved flowers that are specifically “designed” to attract these powerful fliers with their long beaks or tongues.  Such flowers typically have abundant nectar at the base of elongated floral tubes (the bottom part of the petals grows together to form a hollow tube).  But while hummingbird flowers are usually brightly colored (especially red) and often do not have any scent (since hummingbirds can’t smell), moth-pollinated flowers are typically white or pale-colored, and often emit a strong, sweet scent as the sun goes down.   

The family of sphinx moths, the Sphingidae, is a large one, with about 1200 species world-wide (most are tropical).  There are about 60 species of sphinx moths in North America, several of which occur locally.  Some of the most common species in our area are the Five-spotted sphinx, the Carolina sphinx, the Rustic sphinx, the Pink-spotted hawkmoth, White-lined sphinx, Tersa sphinx, Vine sphinx, and Pandorus sphinx

Another spectacular species, which occasionally ranges up from the tropics into our area, is the Giant sphinx.  This very large moth (over six inches across) is notable as the pollinator of the rare ghost orchid of Florida’s swamps, Dendrophylax lindenii.  Made famous in the book “The Orchid Thief” on which the movie “Adaptation” was based, this orchid has an extremely long, thin floral tube and depends on the giant sphinx moth to transfer pollen from one bloom to another in order to reproduce.  Take a look at the specimen of the giant sphinx from our collection.  Uncoiled, its tongue is almost nine inches long, almost twice as long as its body! 

Giant sphinx moth with proboscis extended

Giant sphinx moth with proboscis extended

This moth is the New World equivalent of the renowned “Darwin’s moth.”  As the story goes, when in Madagascar, Charles Darwin saw the orchid Angraecum sesquipidale (rather similar to the ghost orchid).  He postulated that there must be a moth with a tongue of equal length to the orchid’s 11 inch nectar spur that would serve as its pollinator.  Sure enough, 41 years later (long after Darwin’s death), such a moth was discovered and its common name acknowledges his prescience.

tomato hornworm
Creative Commons License  photo credit: naturegirl 78
Tomato hornworm
(Manduca quinquemaculata)

Sphinx moth caterpillars are called “hornworms” because most of them have a distinctive horn that sticks up at the end of their abdomen.  If you are a gardener you may have encountered large, green hornworms devouring the foliage of your tomato plants; these turn into the five-spotted hawkmoth I saw visiting my Rangoon creeper.  Another hornworm frequently seen in the garden (if you grow pentas or star-flower) is the caterpillar of the Tersa sphinx, Xylophanes tersa.  This caterpillar turns from green to brown as it grows, and has a pair of dramatic eyespots on its thorax.  People sometimes confuse it with the caterpillar of the spicebush swallowtail. While hornworms can eat a lot of foliage, I confess that in my garden they are welcome to it – I like the adult moths too much to consider destroying their destructive “baby” stage…  Besides, I think the caterpillars themselves are rather handsome! 

If you find a hornworm and want to rear it, be sure to provide it with a couple of inches of loose soil when it gets large enough to pupate.  Most sphinx moths pupate in the soil, and do not spin cocoons around the brown pupa.  Some sphinx pupae have the tongue pulled away from the body, resembling the handle on a pitcher or Greek vase!  Don’t disturb the caterpillar/pupa for several days after it burrows down or you may disrupt the pupation process. 

Whether or not you get into the caterpillars, it is always a thrill to see an adult sphinx moth in action.  To attract these nocturnal hummingbirds to your garden, consider planting some of the following.  As an added benefit, you’ll enjoy the wonderful fragrance on evenings when these plants are in flower.

Mirabilis
Creative Commons License  photo credit: sigusr0
Four O’clock (note long tube)

Angel’s trumpet (Brugmansia candida)

Jimsonweed or Datura (Daturaspp.)

Night-blooming jasmine (Cestrum nocturnum)

Rangoon creeper (Quisqualis indica)

Moon flower (Ipomea alba)

Four O’clocks (Mirabilis spp.)

Evening primrose (Oenothera spp.)

Petunias (Petunia spp.)