The Elephant as a Caterpillar

28 June 2013

In the last article I talked about the Elephant Hawk-moth in its adult form. Today, I’d like to introduce you to the caterpillar.

My first encounter with and Elephant Hawk-moth caterpillar was totally unexpected. I’d let a self-seeded evening primrose grow at the side of the patio, which had flopped. I bent down to fuss the cat and looked up to see a fearsome beast staring back at me.

Left: Elephant Hawk-moth caterpillar. Right: evening primrose flower.

Left: Elephant Hawk-moth caterpillar. Right: evening primrose flower.

You can tell it’s a hawk-moth caterpillar by the spur on its tail end, and the huge “eyes” at the front are not real: they are just markings on the skin, designed to scare predators. This specimen is brown, which is the more usual colour, but they are sometimes green, though with the same eye spots.

This type of evening primose is oenothera biennis (I think) – as suggested by the second part of the latin name, it is a biennial: i.e. it grows in one year and flowers the next, then dies. It is a flower that only opens up late in the day, suggesting it is moth-pollinated, though I’ve read it is largely self-pollinated. There are garden varieties – look under oenothera to find them; I do not know if these are used by the Elephant as a food plant – let me know if you do. The Elephant will use other foodplants, and the one you are most likely to have in your garden is the fuschia. I mentioned rosebay willowherb in my last post, but plant it at your own risk.

The view you are most likely to get of the caterpillar is when it starts to wander round looking for a place to pupate. This is likely to be in August/September, and they can roam around for some time before finding a place to burrow down into the earth and turn into a pupa, where they stay until the following May. They can be very hard to spot when they are on bare earth (see below) and are more often spotted when they head across the lawn (so watch out when you are mowing).

Left: caterpillar on the ground. Right: the adult butterfly seems to keep as beady an eye on you as the caterpillar did.

Left: caterpillar on the ground. Right: the adult butterfly seems to keep as beady an eye on you as the caterpillar did.

This is a common moth in most of Britain, so keep an eye open on your fuschia, and you could find it’s housing an elephant!

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