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Curator of Lepidoptera

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Meet the hawkmoths

Posted by Alessandro Giusti Dec 17, 2013

In my last post I described one of my curatorial tasks here at the Museum: the re-housing of our extensive collections of hawkmoths, made up of around 289,000 specimens.

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The re-housing of the Museum’s extensive collection of hawkmoths will keep me busy for the next few months (did I hear someone say years?)

 

In this post I would like you to meet the actual stars of this project, the hawkmoths themselves. Hawkmoths belong to the Lepidoptera family called Sphingidae, a relatively small family if compared with other families in the order Lepidoptera; so far there are 208 genera and 1,492 species described. Untitled-2.jpgHawkmoths are insects belonging to the family Sphingidae in the order Lepidoptera. 208 genera and 1492 species of hawkmoths have been described so far. Top row (L-R): Deilephila elpenor (Elephant hawkmoth), Agrius convolvuli (Convolvulus hawkmoth), Elibia dolichus. Middle row (L-R): Cechenena sp., Hayesiana triopus, Agrius convolvuli (Convolvulus hawkmoth). Bottom row (L-R): Mimas tiliae (Lime hawkmoth), Hyles sp., Hyles lineata (Striped hawkmoth), Akbesia davidi.

 

Species belonging to this family usually have falcate (curved and hooked) wings and their body is characteristically streamlined. The majority of species have a very swift and agile flight, and hover rapidly in front of flowers feeding on nectar with their tongue, which is often very long.

 

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The long tongue of many species of hawkmoths is mainly used to feed on nectar from flowers or occasionally, as in the case of this Argentinean Xylophanes schreiteri, on sweet breakfast leftovers! This photo was kindly provided by Tony Pittaway. Check Tony’s interesting websites, Sphingidae of the Western Palaearctic and Sphingidae of the Eastern Palaearctic, for more information and pictures of hawkmoths.

 

Hawkmoths caterpillars are large and have a curved horn on the rear end. When disturbed, they usually rear up with their anterior segments arched, in a manner reminiscent of the Egyptian sphinx. These two larval features explain why these moths are also known with the common names of hornworms and sphinx-moths, while the common name hawkmoth refers to the rapid flight and falcate wing shape of the adult.

 

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Sphingid caterpillars have a horn of various shapes on the last abdominal segment. From top right clockwise: Cephonodes hylas, Dolbina inexacta, Eumorpha analis and Daphnis nerii (Oleander hawkmoth). All pictures by Tony Pittaway.

 

The beauty and elegance of hawkmoths have always been attractive to both scientists and the public; consequently these moths have become one of the most widely collected groups of insects.

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The beauty and elegance of hawkmoths have always been attractive to both scientists and the public.

 

Hawkmoths are generally well represented in every insect collection, large or small, and they are frequently reared from caterpillars, which has helped in providing a great deal of information on their biology and life history. Most species are also readily attracted to artificial light sources and this helps in surveying them when conducting biodiversity inventories of an area, which in turn has provided us with considerable insights into their distributional patterns and ranges.

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Many species of hawkmoths are attracted to artificial light sources.

 

The following pictures, taken from specimens in the Museum collections, show the ample variation that exists in size, shape, features and wing patterns among the different species in this family of moths.

 

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The stunningly emerald green Euchloron maegera. This species is commonly distributed in all Sub-Saharan Africa.

 

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Oryba kadeni is another wonderfully green hawkmoth. It’s characterised by very large eyes and relatively short antennae. This species is found from Belize southward to Brazil.

 

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Some sphingids like dressing in pink, such as this lovely elephant hawkmoth (Deilephila elpenor). This species is relatively common and widely distributed. It occurs in all Europe (with the exception of northern Scandinavia, northern Scotland and parts of the Iberian Peninsula), eastward through temperate Russia to the Pacific coast, Korea & Japan. It is also found in China as far as the provinces of Sichuan and Guangdong. It is a common species in the UK.

 

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Leucophlebia lineata is another pretty hawkmoth sporting a series of pink, yellow and white stripes on the forewings. This species is found from Pakistan through India and Sri Lanka, to eastern and southern China, down to South East Asia.

 

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Neococytius cluentius is one of the largest hawkmoths with a wingspan that can reach 17cm, and a long tongue of up to 22cm. It occurs from Mexico to Argentina, and has also been recorded as a stray in north Illinois and south Michigan.

 

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The record for the longest tongue belongs to Xanthopan morganii subsp. praedicta, a relatively large hawkmoth found in Madagascar famous for its long proboscis used for probing on flowers to feed on nectar. Thanks to its long proboscis, which can reach 25cm, this moth is well adapted for feeding from the flowers of star orchids, in which the nectar is kept at the bottom of a very long spur. While doing so the hawkmoth secures the pollination of the orchid.

 

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On the other hand, the adult of the hawkmoths in the subfamily Smerinthini, such as this Laothoe populi (the poplar hawkmoth), have extremely reduced mouthparts and are unable to feed. This moth is well distributed across Europe, as far as southern Turkey and eastward through Russia, and as far east as Irkutsk. It’s probably the most common hawkmoth in the UK where the adults fly between May and July.

 

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Sphingonaepiopsis gorgoniades with its 2-3 cm wing span is the smallest hawkmoth. It occurs in some countries in South-East Europe, Turkey, Ukraine, Southern Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan. It has also been recorded in parts of the Middle East.

 

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The hawkmoth Euryglottis aper reminds me a bit of one of those soft toy puppets. It is a very hairy species as it flies at elevation of up to 2800m in Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia.

 

The Museum collection contains representive specimens of 207 genera and around 1,300 species of hawkmoths; a global coverage of 85%. Of the 289,000 specimens of Sphingidae held in the Museum collections, 113,000 are dry pinned and a further 176,000 are unset and still in their original envelopes. The  Museum's collection is certainly the largest and most complete collection of sphingid in the world.

 

In the next post I will be featuring more pictures and information on other species of hawkmoths and I will also give a little bit of history about the original hawkmoths collection of the Natural History Museum. I hope you'll be back then.

 

Thanks for reading and I take this opportunity to wish all the readers a Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year.

 

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A friendly convolvulus hawkmoth I met on a recent trip to Bulgaria. Isn't he cute?