Abbott’s Sphinx, Caterpillar and Adult

2014 August 2

Sandy caught me this nice Abbott’s Sphinx caterpillar on July 26, 2013. This is one that we’d seen before back in 2009, and I thought it warranted further examination.

One of its interesting features is its “Snake Act”, where its rear portion has evolved to resemble a snakes head. When disturbed, it actually does a fairly good imitation of a snake ready to strike.[1]

The “false head” only has the one “eye”, but the eyespot (which is faked up from the horn that most other sphinx moth caterpillars have) is pretty convincing.

In addition to pretending to be a snake, it also lashed back and forth fairly violently when handled, while making kind of a “bbbrrrttt” sound by shooting air out of its breathing spiracles.

All these efforts to look like a snake would seem to be kind of lost on our local predators, seeing as how the snakes we have around here are small, non-venomous, and would seem to be more likely to be prey than predator as far as the local birds are concerned. However, we should remember that the majority of our insect-eating birds are migratory, and so while they would have no reason to be cautious about Michigan snakes, they would probably have learned caution during the time that they spent further south.

Here’s the caterpillar’s real head, which looks much more like what you expect from a caterpillar. They eat grape and virginia creeper leaves.

Sphinx moths mostly overwinter as pupae, so to see the adult, it’s necessary to find some way to get them through until spring. I hadn’t had much luck with rearing sphinx moths in the past, because they evidently need to stay buried under fairly specific moisture conditions. If you rear them as “bare” pupae in a jar, they just either dry out or get moldy. So to rear it, I took a 2-quart mason jar, filled it about 2/3 full with wet soil, covered that with a layer of dry leaf litter, and then put in the caterpillar. Which promptly buried itself, and presumably pupated. I then put the jar into an unheated basement for the winter. Once the snow all melted in the first week of May, I put the jar inside a mesh insect cage on our back porch, and waited. The adult emerged on May 31, 2014. Sam’s finger is included for scale. This moth was a big one.

Unfortunately, even though the moth reared OK, it turned out the jar was just a bit too cramped for it to unfold its wings fully. And by the time we noticed it, the wings had hardened with the tips curled up, and it apparently couldn’t fly (although it did try, buzzing like a hummingbird the whole time)

The tail is kind of distinctive, it almost looks like a feathery bird’s tail.

The eyes were kind of hard to see. At first, I wasn’t so sure it even had eyes.

But, if you look behind the antenna base, you can just barely see the eye tucked in there.

Aside from the wings, it was in good health, so I took it out and put it on one of our grapevines out back. I figured that if it was a female, then even if it couldn’t fly, a male might come by to mate with her, and then she’d have an appropriate plant to lay eggs on.

It was gone by the next day. But, the thing is, about a week later Sandy called me over to see a sphinx moth flying around the grapevine that looked a lot like this one, right down to the short body, the “bird tail”, and the yellow patches on the hindwings. It flew like a hummingbird, and would occasionally stop and press its abdoment tip against the grapevine. When we checked later, at every spot where it had stopped there was a single green egg. The thing is, this might very well be the same moth. It is possible that, by buzzing its wings, the deformed tips had been broken off, making it aerodynamic enough to fly after all!

Then again, maybe it was a different one. Still, I like to think that it all worked out. So now we’ll keep an eye on the grapevine, and see if the caterpillars actually turn up.

[1] Speaking of snakes,here’s a Northern Ringnecked Snake that Sandy caught for us in the yard.

These are pretty mellow snakes that you normally find under logs and in the leaf litter.

They don’t bite, although they do exude a smelly saliva from the corners of their mouths that is difficult to wash off.

We actually don’t see these as often as the Red-Bellied Snakes or Garter snakes, but they do turn up from time to time. There are a couple of other snake species that are supposed to be found in the Upper Peninsula, but we haven’t seen them yet.

2 Responses
  1. Carole permalink
    August 2, 2014

    Beautiful moth and I’m partial to ringnecks. I had a hummingbird clearwing moth laying eggs on my Walter’s vibrnum this week.

  2. Scott permalink
    June 25, 2016

    Neat. I took a nice photo of an Abbott’s Sphinx catepillar on Cape Cod. Would upload it if I knew how. Had no idea what it looked like as a moth so this was cool to see.

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