Wednesday, September 16, 2009

What is this enormous caterpillar?

Fat as a finger and almost as long (about 75mm), it's got a couple of spots at one end (the front I presume) to look like eyes and a single small "horn" at the other end. The underside has a few black, thick, stumpy legs, arranged in groups.

That's my little finger in the picture. I'm 6ft 2ins tall and my hands are proportionate to my height.

I found it on the steps outside our kitchen door today. It may have fallen off a hazel tree overhanging the steps but there is plenty of other vegetation around from which it could have come.
Where do you find out things like this? Well, answering my own question, on, of course. Turns out it's an elephant hawk moth's caterpillar. Isn't the web great!
Elsewhere online and off, I read that the caterpillar feeds off willowherb (great and rosebay varieties) which we don't have in our garden. They are also partial to fuschias which again we haven't got. So there are probably other plants it feeds from too.
The caterpillar's head swells when it is alarmed making the eye-type markings more prominent and so it looks like a snake - a neat defence mechanism. The name "Elephant hawk moth" also comes from the caterpillar rather than the moth. The front segment is tapered into a trunk, making it look (with a bit of imagination) a bit like an elephant. But when I sa it it was alarmed and more snake-like than elephantine.
The moth itself feeds on the nectar of honeysuckles, which we do have. I'll keep an eye open for them - they're browney pink and quite large (upto 70mm wingspan).
PS Actually, the homepage of whatsthiscaterpillar finishes with this line: "The Elephant Hawk-moth comes in two colour forms: green and grey; it is the caterpillar that puzzled visitors send pictures of most frequently in the UK!" So noteworthy rather than rare.

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