Sphingidae research

Noctuoid moth

Macroglossum stellatarum, hummingbird hawkmoth © Umberto Salvagnin, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Principal Investigator

Project summary

  • Focus: understanding hawkmoths through morphological and DNA analysis

Our hawkmoth research aims to develop our understanding of the Sphingidae family through both morphological and DNA analysis, and provide an online taxonomy resource known as the Sphingidae Taxonomic Inventory. 

The 1,450 species of Sphingidae or hawkmoths are one of the most-studied groups of insects. 

The large size, great beauty and elegant lines of hawkmoths have long appealed to both scientists and the public. They are among the most frequently reared Lepidoptera and there is a wealth of information on their biology and life histories. 

Hawkmoths have provided model organisms for studies in fields as diverse as:

  • genetics
  • physiology
  • functional morphology
  • plant-insect interactions
  • pollination biology and biogeography

Sphinx ligustri, privet hawkmoth © Gaudete, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5


Molecular studies of hawkmoths

Our research has created the first comprehensive phylogeny for hawkmoths.

Using DNA sequences from five nuclear genes, a large-scale molecular analysis of hawkmoths has been completed.

These studies have:

  • challenged current concepts based on morphology
  • provided a basis for new classification
  • provided insights into the biogeography of hawkmoths

Further research, in collaboration with colleagues from the University of Florida, hopes to use further DNA sequences, in conjunction with a new analysis of morphological characters, to refine and expand the phylogeny to include all genera and major species-groups of sphingids.

In further collaboration with colleagues at Boise University, Idaho, this phylogeny will be used to underpin studies investigating the predator-prey relationship between bats and hawkmoths.

Sphingidae Taxonomic Inventory

The Sphingidae Taxonomic Inventory website aims to provide an authoritative resource on the global diversity of the family Sphingidae (hawkmoths).

The site currently includes individual pages for all genera and species and an evolving bibliography of over 4,000 references.

It also provides:

  • a consensus classification of hawkmoths
  • photos to enable identification
  • diagnoses of many species and subspecies
  • distribution maps
  • data on types, nomenclature and classification.

Sphingidae Taxonomic Inventory scratchpad

The Sphingidae Taxonomic Inventory is a derivative of the Creating a Taxonomic e-Science (CATE) project, which tested the feasibility of creating a web-based, consensus taxonomy. This was a joint project with the University of Oxford and the Royal Botanic gardens Kew, funded by the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council.

Biodiversity research

We are creating molecular and digital tools to explore undiscovered biodiversity

Insect research

Our scientists are conserving and investigating the Museum's collections to help with cutting edge research

Lepidoptera collections

The Museum’s Lepidoptera collection contains approximately 8,712,000 specimens in 80,000 drawers