Eastern Death’s Head Hawkmoth

These beautiful wings above belong to a hawkmoth – specifically, to an Eastern Death’s Head Hawkmoth (Acherontia styx). Hawkmoths (family Sphingidae) are known for their sustained and agile flying abilities, reminiscent of a hummingbird’s flight and giving rise to another common name, hummingbird moths. There are 12 species of hawkmoths in Egypt. (You can read about two others on the blog – the Convolvulus Hawkmoth and the Striped Hawkmoth). Like all hawkmoths, the Eastern Death’s Head Hawkmoth has narrow wings and a streamlined abdomen, aiding their fast flying.

Acherontia styx is also known as the Small or Lesser Death’s Head Hawkmoth. Globally, there are three species of Death’s Head Hawkmoths (Acherontia spp.), all named in reference to Greek myths of death. A. styx is named after one of the rivers that divides Earth from the underworld. The moths were given this name in reference to the skull-like markings, with two black spots for eyes, on the back of the thoraxes, in addition to their somewhat-gloomy coloring.

Adults have brown heads, dark thoraxes, and a yellow-striped abdomen. Their forewings are mottled brown, grey, and a reddish color. The hind wings are yellow with two black bands. Eastern Death’s Head Hawkmoths have a wingspan of 80 – 120 mm.

Eggs are laid, and the larvae (caterpillars) feed, on a range of plants – potato, aubergine, tomato, tobacco, olive, as well as Capsicum, Solanum, Datura, and Nicotiana species. The larvae are yellow/green with yellow lateral stripes and go through several instars. When mature, they dig under the soil to pupate.

And these critters get more interesting!

Death’s Head Hawkmoths can, if disturbed, rapidly expel air to emit a loud squeak, similar to that of an agitated mouse. And these hawkmoths are also known as bee moths because of their ability to safely enter bee hives and drink the honey. They do this with the use of a chemical camouflage; they mimic the scent of bees.

Another fun fact: A. styx was featured in the film The Silence of the Lambs. (A victim was found with a pupa of this moth in her windpipe and there is a scene with entomologists determining the species.)

Interestingly, Acherontia styx was, in a study published in 2022, a new record in Egypt. The previous study on Sphingidae moths in Egypt was completed in 2005.

References:

Abdelfattah Mabrouk Amer Salem. Lepidoptera of Egypt Part III: Revision of Family Sphingidae (Bombycoidea). American Journal of Entomology. Vol. 6, No. 1, 2022, pp. 7-13. doi: 10.11648/j.aje.20220601.12

Specimen of the Week 194: The Death’s-Head Hawkmoth

Moths in Sinai

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Although most species of moths are nocturnal, I’ve spotted all of these moths in Sinai during the day.

In this sampling of photos, you can see:

Eastern Bordered Straw Moth (Heliothis nubigera)
Egyptian Noctuid/Green Drab (Ophiusa tirhaca)
Convolvulus Hawkmoth (Agrius convolvuli)
Oleander Hawkmoth (Daphnis nerii)
Hawaiian Beet Webworm Moth (Spoladea recurvalis)
Crimson-speckled Flunkey (Utetheisa pulchella)
Striped Hawkmoth (Hyles livornica)

Convolvulus Hawkmoth

It’s been almost a year exactly since I shared a photograph of an unknown caterpillar that was devouring the basil plant in my garden. A few months ago, my students and I were able to successfully raise one of those critters indoors and finally identify it as a Convolvulus Hawkmoth (Agrius convolvuli)!

Again, we had found the caterpillar munching my basil plant, but my husband and I have also found eggs on a sweet potato plant at his farm.

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The eggs are smooth, greenish spheres and are laid on the underside of leaves. The larvae will eat a range of plants, including but not limited to daisy, taro, morning glory, sunflower, purslane, and some legumes. And as we’ve learned – basil and sweet potato!

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The young caterpillars are green with a straight horn on their tail ends, but the larvae will go through five instar phases, molting its skin at each stage.

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Later instars develop pale diagonal stripes and their horns curve backward. Even later instars may become dark brown. The caterpillars are quite large, growing up to 8 cm in length.

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Our caterpillar buried a few centimeters under gravel and leaf litter to form its pupa, which was glossy and reddish brown. The moths spend between 5 and 26 days in this stage.

Hawkmoth Pupa

Adults Convolvulus Hawkmoths are grey with light and dark patterns. The abdomen has pink patches on the side of each segment.

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I have never seen these moths flying, but like other hawkmoths, they are able to hover in flight.

I am thrilled that we were able to raise this – my first! – moth and share our discoveries with you! Have you ever raised butterflies or moths at home? It truly is a fascinating experience.

Striped Hawkmoth

I promised – to those of you follow on Facebook – that my next post would be about this magnificent critter that I found on a basil plant in my garden –

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– as he was indeed the inspiration for getting back to work on this blog, and so today is all about…hawkmoths!

Unfortunately, I do not know – yet! – exactly who this bright green caterpillar is, but I do know that he (or she) is in the Sphingidae family of moths. Moths in this family are commonly called hawkmoths, sphinx moths, or hornworms.

There are over 1,450 species of Sphingidae moths. The larvae, or caterpillars, of hawkmoths are hairless and have a “horn” on the posterior end.

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Striped Hawkmoth (Hyles livornica)

And while I do not know which caterpillar was munching on my basil plant, I do know who was bending over backwards to eat the tips of desert lavender. That is a larva of the Striped Hawkmoth, Hyles livornica.

It was early spring 2013 and we had had a wet winter in Dahab. There had even been a hail storm in November. So the desert plants were flourishing in the wadis!

On one early morning wander, we came across an area lush with fresh green asphodel, lavender, and sorrel. And crawling across the sandy wadi were the most amazing caterpillars I had seen in Sinai! Dozens of them. Some of the largest were as long and thick as my index finger. They were happily munching on all the nearby herbs.

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Like all caterpillars, these Striped Hawkmoth larvae go through several stages of development, or instars, and their colors and patterns can change quite dramatically at each stage.

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Hawkmoth caterpillars will burrow into the soil or gravel or hide among the rocks to pupate and I have never seen that stage of development. But about a month after we saw the caterpillars, we discovered the adult Striped Hawkmoths. They were busy feeding on the dhafrah (Iphiona scabra) flowers.

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Sphingidae moths are known for their rapid flight and ability to hover in midair while they feed. They use their long proboscis (mouth parts) to reach the nectar in the flowers. Male moths are typically smaller than females. Both are beige with white stripes. Their hindwings, not seen when the wings are at rest, are pink and edged with black and white.

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a Striped Hawkmoth, attracted to the light in the tent during a spring safari

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Dahab was blessed recently with several good rainstorms and young desert plants are already poking their heads through the sand. Let’s hope the plants start to thrive again and that we have beautiful green wadis to wander through this coming spring. The butterflies and moths would be happy with that, too!

References:

Striped hawkmoth ~ ARKive

Hyles livornica ~ Moth and Butterflies of Europe and North Africa

Hyles livornica ~ Wikipedia