Thursday, June 23, 2011

Carolina Sphinx Moth Caterpillar

Carolina Sphinx Caterpillar, Manduca sexta.  Despite the scary-looking horn, this hawk moth larva is harmless.

His story could be a graphic novel.  

Our innocent protagonist is orphaned, unloved and shunned.   If you cast eyes upon him, you might describe him as interestingly attractive, but others look at him with fear, even loathing.  He’s marked for death, although he doesn’t know why.  In order to survive, he must hide and he must steal food.  This fellow has no weapons and will not fight.  Instinctively, he has an aptitude for disguise and stealth, but those abilities may not be enough to keep him alive.  Every moment, of every day or night, there is danger.  He can never relax. 
Food is so scarce, that if he loses his supply, he may starve.  There are people here that would battle him to the death for his food.  

He must avoid fearsome predators that that would literally devour him.  From his hiding place, he has watched as unfortunates have met their end. The ruthless raptors slash and dismember their victims’  bodies, then carry away the pieces.  It’s all too gruesome.  

There is yet another way to die that is slower and more dreadful.  He has seen a wasp that renders a violent sting, but it does not kill. At least, the victim does not die right away.  Those who have been stung develop ghastly, bulbous tumors all over their bodies.  As the growths swell, the tumors consume the victim who dies slowly, in terrible agony.

If by some amazing chance our hero can find enough food, avoid the competitors, and evade the predators, he will be in for a shock.  When he comes of age, he will undergo a bizarre, disfiguring mutation and gain a super power!  No one has warned him about this; he will have to suffer the pain of transformation and figure things out on his own. This is his family’s legacy.

Such is the secret identity of the Carolina Sphinx Moth caterpillar!  Despised by many gardeners, he is cursed with the epithet, "Tobacco Horn Worm".  Yet, as a beautiful and powerful adult, he is blessed with the sobriquet, "Hawk Moth" or perhaps, "Hummingbird Moth".  He is the size of a Ruby-Throated Hummingbird.   We admire this lovely pollinator in the evenings as he hovers at flowers, extending his long proboscis to sip nectar.  

The super power?  Tune in next week to find out…  Just  kidding.  Ok, the Sphinx Moth is the most powerful flyer of the entire order!  That’s right!  No other Lepidopteran is faster.  That means there is not a moth or butterfly that can out-fly a Sphinx Moth.   Super!   

Early Instar of Manduca sexta on Tomato leaf
Carolina Sphinx Moth Larva on Cherry Tomato.  I have enough to share.

Abdominal Prolegs of Manduca sexta.  Note the crochets, little hooks on the prolegs, that help the caterpillar grip the plant stem.

Carolina Sphinx Moth Frass on cucumber leaf.  Frass is usually the first clue of a caterpillar's location. This Caterpillar was on the Cherry tomatoes just above the cucumbers.
Head of Manduca sextaSix Thoracic legs are tucked under mandible.  He looks like a thoughtful professor.
Manduca sexta, Carolina Sphinx Caterpillar.  Note the camouflage:  color, texture, even the fine hairs on the caterpillar mimic the fine hair-like features of the Cherry Tomato stem.