Cochise County Insects: The White Lined Sphinx Moth (Caterpillar Focus)

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It was the huge green caterpillar, the larval form of Hyles lineata, the white lined sphinx moth, that got my attention. On our Cochise County acreage here in Arizona, the adult moths might have been seen on occasion, but they’d certainly not been noticed.

The caterpillars, on the other hand, could not be ignored. The first one had shown up just this year, out back near the water tower area. Thick, hairless, with a sharp looking horn jutting up at the back end and bright coloration from tip to tip, the critter drew the eye. Bright green body, black racing stripes, a few red spots for accent…wow.

White Lined Sphnix Moth

Aha! My wife took one look at this moth image and advised me that often, when she’s sitting outside in the car with the door open–which is where she puffs a cigarette on occasion rather than smell up the house–one of these moths comes to visit. This is usually in the evening, and the white lined sphinx will fly right into the car and hang out, landing on her thigh and visiting until Pam moves.

So I guess this species has been noticed after all!

It’s probably a good thing that we are living in desert rat mode without a garden or fruit orchard, at least for now…because the caterpillar form of this moth eats things like tomato plants and apple leaves whenever they’re available. At least, that’s what the literature says.

Based on my observation of the four inch green eating machine, I’m not sure they’re picky at all. The one in these photos (on this page) was happily munching away on the leaves of a low ground cover plant that’s abundant hereabouts. However, if they’re not picky, they surely are serious about lunch. I regretted not having the camcorder with me; the caterpillar’s head was literally whipping from side to side, it was chowing down so fast.

Their mouths are tiny but mighty.

White sphinx moth caterpillar in southern Arizona, busy having lunch.

White sphinx moth caterpillar in southern Arizona, busy having lunch.

Other online Hyles lineata caterpillar pics show a sharp, thorny looking horn jutting up at the tail end. Hm. The tail of this one had been somewhat hidden in the foliage. But, let’s see…yes. A yellow, golden sort of color, but definitely a horn.

Water Tank and Long Slim Ants 009 (2)

The horn (at the tail end to the left) on this Hyles lineata caterpillar is a golden yellow color.

The horn (at the tail end to the left) on this Hyles lineata caterpillar is a golden yellow color.

The transformation from caterpillar to adult moth is remarkable in more ways than one. It surprised me a bit to learn that what starts out as a four inch long tube-shaped larva ends up not only as a pair of fuzzy, multicolored wings–but also as a heavy, stubby looking body that leaves the observer wondering how the creature manages to fly at all.

Of course, the mass has to come from somewhere.

Not only mass but, sometimes, rather a mess. That’s what one website states, noting that this larval form of the white lined sphinx moth is so common in southern Arizona (Cochise County included) that roads sometimes have to be closed because of all the caterpillars getting slickery-squished underfoot. Thankfully, we’ve not seen that happen. In fact, this is the first year we’ve seen any of these impressive green guys at all.

Water Tank and Long Slim Ants 016 (2)

Digging in.  So many leaves, so little time.

Digging in. So many leaves, so little time.

Water Tank and Long Slim Ants 010 (2)

Now, let’s suppose that you were a leaf. Would this not be the face of terror?

If you are a leaf, this business end of the white sphinx moth caterpillar is the face of terror.

If you are a leaf, this business end of the white sphinx moth caterpillar is the face of terror.

Yep.  Jabba the Hutt, right there.

At the end of the photo shoot, we left the big green caterpillar happily–or at least frenetically–munching away on this seventh day of September, 2013.

Happy metamorphosis, little guy. See you later, perhaps, flying in to rest a few minutes on Pam’s thigh.

The Hyles lineata caterpillar kept on eating as we said goodbye.

The Hyles lineata caterpillar kept on eating as we said goodbye.

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