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Skippers Butterflies and Moths: Lepidoptera

Death's Head Hawk Moth (acherontia Atropos): Species Accounts

Physical characteristics: These moths have a skull-like pattern on the thorax. They are large and heavily built insects, with a wingspan of 4.4 to 4.8 inches (110 to 120 millimeters). Their long forewings are dark, while the hind wings are yellow with black lines near the edges. The hairy proboscis is short and thick. The abdomen has yellow and black bands. Mature larvae measure 4.8 to 5.2 inches (120 to 130 millimeters) long. Their bodies are yellow, green, or brown with a large horn toward the rear. The pupa is shiny, reddish brown, and measures 3.0 to 3.2 inches (75.7 to 80.0 millimeters).

Geographic range: They are found throughout Africa south of the Sahara Desert but occasionally migrate north to the Mediterranean Sea as well as central and northern Europe.

Habitat: The death's head hawk moth lives in dry and sunny locations, especially open shrubby habitats with plenty of plants in the nightshade family. This includes agricultural areas where potatoes are grown.

Death's head hawk moths use their short proboscis to feed on honey, rotting fruit, and tree sap. (Kim Taylor/Bruce Coleman Inc. Reproduced by permission.)

Diet: The larvae eat plants in the nightshade family and are particularly fond of potato. The adults use their short proboscis to feed on honey, rotting fruit, and tree sap.

Behavior and reproduction: The caterpillars are sluggish and usually move only when looking for a fresh leaf to eat. When threatened they click their jaws together and will sometimes bite. Adults are active just after sundown to midnight. Their days are spent resting on tree trunks, walls, or leaves on the ground. They are attracted to lights and sometimes to flowers. These moths often invade beehives to steal honey and defend themselves by smelling like a bee, raising their wings, and running and hopping about. When attacked, they force air out of their proboscis, making a squeaking noise. They also release a moldy smell from special hairs associated with glands on their abdomen.

Females lay eggs singly underneath old leaves of the caterpillar's food plant. They pupate inside a flimsy cocoon in a cavity dug deep in the soil.

Death's head hawk moths and people: This moth is considered to be an evil creature because of the skull pattern on the thorax and the loud squeaking sound that it makes when disturbed. It once was considered a symbol of war, pestilence, and death. It was featured on the cover of the book and appeared in the film The Silence of the Lambs.

Conservation status: This species is not considered endangered or threatened. However, it is less common today as a result of the use of pesticides. ∎



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Web sites:

"Butterflies and Moths. Lepidoptera." BioKids. Critter Catalog. http://www.biokids.umich.edu/critters/information/Lepidoptera.html (accessed on October 28, 2004).

"Lepidoptera. Butterflies, moths." Ecowatch. http://www.ento.csiro.au/Ecowatch/Lepidoptera/Lepidoptera.htm (accessed on October 28, 2004).


Bug City. Butterflies and Moths. Wynnewood, PA: Schlessinger Media, 1998.

Additional topics

Animal Life ResourceInsects and SpidersSkippers Butterflies and Moths: Lepidoptera - Physical Characteristics, Habitat, Diet, Behavior And Reproduction, Lepidopterans And People, Conservation Status - GEOGRAPHIC RANGE