Large moths

Ello Sphinx caterpillar (Erinnyis ello). Boca Raton, FL, January 29, 2015.

Over the years I’ve found some big moths on the property, both as larvae and as adults. When I say big, I mean big enough that people notice them, not the little tiny guys that are present by the hundreds in the grasses and flower beds. I’m talking sphinx moths, family Sphingidae, also known as hawk moths They’re a bit more cryptic, and less spectacular, than their cousins in the family Saturniidae, the silk moths, but they make up for it with the impressive thickness of their bodies (their abdomens) and their ability to hover like a hummingbird (the “hummingbird moth” is a sphinx moth).

They’re large enough, for example, that one of Poe’s characters mistakes one on his windowpane for a truly monstrous beast much farther away (although Poe, with characteristic sleight of hand, reduces the size of the moth in the punch line to this bagatelle, titled simply “The Sphinx,” to 1/16 of an inch, far smaller than they really are).

Here’s a little gallery of these mysterious monsters that have visited my yard.

Mournful Sphinx (Enyo lugubris) back in 2011.

Mournful Sphinx moth (Enyo lugubris). Boca Raton, FL, November 12, 2011.

Mournful Sphinx moth (Enyo lugubris). Boca Raton, FL, November 12, 2011.

Pluto Sphinx (Xylophanes pluto) back in 2012:

Pluto sphinx caterpillar (Xylophanes pluto). Boca Raton, FL, January 26, 2012.

Pluto sphinx caterpillar (Xylophanes pluto). Boca Raton, FL, January 26, 2012.

This first caterpillar was pink in color, feeding on the native firebush, Hamelia patens. The images below are either of a later instar or a different individual. They’re nearly 3 weeks later than the picture above, and in addition to being substantially fatter, the caterpillar is brown instead of pink:

Pluto Sphinx caterpillar. Boca Raton, FL, February 14, 2012.

Pluto Sphinx caterpillar. Boca Raton, FL, February 14, 2012.

The false eyespots of this species are particularly impressive:

Pluto Sphinx caterpillar. Boca Raton, FL, February 14, 2012.

Pluto Sphinx caterpillar. Boca Raton, FL, February 14, 2012.

Pluto sphinx moth (Xylophanes pluto). Boca Raton, FL, August 31, 2012.

Pluto sphinx moth (Xylophanes pluto). Boca Raton, FL, August 31, 2012.

Carolina Sphinx in 2014:

Caroliina Sphinx moth (Manduca sexta). Boca Raton, FL, September 12, 2014.

Caroliina Sphinx moth (Manduca sexta). Boca Raton, FL, September 12, 2014.

And finally, in 2015, I’ve come across the “default”  moth that I’d thought each of those might be in the past: Erinnyis ello, the Ello Sphinx moth. So far, just the caterpillar, but isn’t it a beauty?

Ello Sphinx caterpillar (Erinnyis ello). Boca Raton, FL, January 29, 2015.

Ello Sphinx caterpillar (Erinnyis ello). Boca Raton, FL, January 29, 2015.

Ello Sphinx caterpillar (Erinnyis ello). Boca Raton, FL, January 29, 2015.

Ello Sphinx caterpillar (Erinnyis ello). Boca Raton, FL, January 29, 2015.

This caterpillar feeds on the leaves of many plants, but in my yard it prefers silver buttonwood (Conocarpus erectus) which, when not being ravaged by herbivorous insects, is a very attractive Florida native. I don’t mind the feeding damage, though, since the caterpillar is so interesting to look at:

Ello Sphinx caterpillar (Erinnyis ello). Boca Raton, FL, January 29, 2015.

Ello Sphinx caterpillar (Erinnyis ello). Boca Raton, FL, January 29, 2015.

Check out those mouthparts!

There are two on this particular plant, and I speculate that they came from these two eggs:

Insect eggs, presumably Erinnyis ello. Boca Raton, FL, January 7, 2015.

Insect eggs, presumably Erinnyis ello. Boca Raton, FL, January 7, 2015.

However, there’s no real way to prove that. And after several days of feeding, I’m not entirely sure whether these caterpillars were picked off by the local birds or whether they did manage to pupate and emerge as moths. Whatever the case may be, I never did find the adult moths.

And, sad story but true, I had to remove those buttonwoods this spring. This location was just too dry for this wetland species, so I traded them out for some more xeric plants: saw palmettos. Not to worry, though! In the adjacent side yard, I planted a willow bustic, which is one of the many food plants for the Ello sphinx moth. I’m hopeful that we’ll see more of these little critters soon!

Eumaeus atala butterfly, at long last


I have a new puzzle on my hands. I don’t know of any places in the neighborhood with enough coontie to support the Atala Blue butterfly (Eumaeus atala), but I’ve got one “sleeping” on my pool deck:

It’s been there all morning, from 8 a.m. when I got the right profile above, to noon, when I got the left profile, below.

From now on when we’re on our evening strolls, I’ll have to keep my eyes peeled for its only known larval host plant: coontie (Zamia floridana). It’s a plant I want to have in my yard, but the seeds are poisonous, so we’re a bit worried about the boys eating them. My boys don’t have the millions of years of evolutionary adaptation that allow the butterfly larvae not only to tolerate the poison but to incorporate it into their tissues, rendering them unpalatable to predators.

The bright, warning (aposematic) coloration advertises their toxicity, so predators know to leave them alone.

Judging by the frayed wing edges and its sluggish demeanor, though, I don’t think this butterfly is much longer for this world. You have to respect its warning coloration, though: Not many insects would last four hours on that pool deck, surrounded by hungry lizards. In fact, the regal darner I “rescued” from the pool back in September didn’t last four minutes.

For more on the coontie plant and the butterfly it supports, read this information sheet from UF/IFAS.

And have a Happy Thanksgiving!

A second sphinx moth: Xylophanes pluto


Last year I found an adult sphinx moth, Enyo lugubris, on our pool fence. It was the first sphinx moth I’d found on our new property, and it sure brightened up my morning.

The other evening, as I was fighting another skirmish in my never-ending war against the scale bugs on my firebush, I uncovered a moth caterpillar from a new (to me) sphinx moth species, Xylophanes pluto:

It’s one of the “hornworm” caterpillars, a name given to the larvae of the moth family Sphingidae for obvious reasons. If ever a lepidopteran larva looked like a unicorn, it would be the members of this family, although I must admit that the horn appears to be attached to the wrong end. These caterpillars can grow quite large; at only one inch long, this one is pretty small, which means that it must be a relatively early instar.

Apparently these caterpillars come in three color forms: green, brown, and purple-brown. This one is purple-brown, which seems to be perfect camouflage for the plant it was foraging on, since firebush has brown stems and reddish/purple berries, and even the green leaves have a reddish/purplish cast.

Amidships, the caterpillar has four prominent “legs”; these are actually known as the anterior prolegs, to distinguish them from the relatively tiny thoracic legs (you can just make them out on the ventral side of the body up above the eyespot, flying free, not touching the plant at all), while the anal proleg is pretty hard to distinguish; it’s on the end that’s scrunched up at the crotch of the plant, anchoring the beast as its front end wiggles in space.

According to W.J. Holland, while the genus Xylophanes is “very large, containing fifty species and many subspecies,” only two species are known within our territory,

though it is possible that a thorough exploration of southern Florida may show that one or two of the species which are found in the Antilles also occur in that State. The student will have no difficulty recognizing the species occurring within our borders by means of the figures which are given upon our plates.

Xylophanes pluto, Plate IV, Fig. 9, from Holland's Moth Book

The two species Holland mentions are X. pluto and X. tersa, and I’ve now seen them both! (Although only one of them has been in my back yard; witness the poor cellphone snap of X. tersa that is my only record.) Unfortunately, I will have great trouble recognizing this species because I’ve never seen the adult form; I’ve seen only two individuals of the larval form. They’re quite distinctive, but I hope to see the adult one of these days.

Etymology: xylo- is wood, -phanes is from Greek phainomai, to appear or come into view. Pluto, of course, is the Roman god of the underworld (the Greek god of the underworld is Hades). The genus was named by Hubner in 1819, although this particular species was described earlier, by Fabricius (1777).

After I first found this beast, I went out at different times of day and evening trying to find it again with no success. I wonder whether the ants that tend the scale bugs are responsible for its disappearance, or if it just crawled off searching for greener pastures? But a couple of weeks later, just as I was readying this post for publication, I found another individual, this one much more brown than purple, and right around lunchtime! It was nowhere near as active as the first one I found (since they’re nocturnal feeders, it’s not surprising that one found near noon would be sluggish).

Having seen the beautiful photos posted to by photographers like Alan Chin-Lee (another Boca resident), I took care to get some nicer angles. I particularly wanted to show both “eyespots”:

Here’s the side view showing the “horn” of this hornworm:

I’m hoping that my removal of as many scale bugs as I can find on these plants will encourage the survival of these sphinx moths; I’m fairly certain the first one was “cleaned” by the ant ranchers. I’ll keep checking on this one, but I won’t hold my breath, either.


Holland, W. J. (1903). The Moth Book: A Popular Guide to a Knowledge of the Moths of North America. NY: Dover. Repr. 1968 with new foreword by A.E. Brower.

Wagner, D. L. (2005). Caterpillars of Eastern North America: A Guide to Identification and Natural History. Princeton UP.

New backyard lepidopteran: Enyo lugubris


City code here in Boca requires that if you have a pool, you also have a fence to keep toddlers from toddling in. Actually, it requires two lines of defense: a fence to keep neighborhood people out of the pool, then another fence to keep residents out of the pool. This pool fence is usually a fine nylon mesh, like window screening only sturdier and much more extensive than most people’s window screens. It also serves as an amazing insect magnet. I’ve found moths, katydids, butterflies, and all kinds of other insects on it. And just the other day, this fence was responsible for my first encounter with a sphinx moth (the common name for moths in the family Sphingidae).

Now, this fence collects a lot of leaf litter in addition to the fauna it gathers in, and that morning as the sunlight slanted in from the southeast, I was sure that a particularly clumpy leaf had blown into the mesh. The outline simply didn’t look anything like an animal, and the coloration was wrong too. This had to be a leaf.

But as I went out to investigate, I got my first good look at it, and it was obvious right away that it was a moth, and from a family I’d always wanted to see: the Sphinx Moth family.

Enyo lugubris, the “war-like mournful” moth (the Greek Ἐνυώ was a war goddess, female counterpart to Ares, while lugubris, of course, means mournful), showed up and stayed around just long enough for me to capture a few pictures. I’m intrigued by the “stabilizer” on the tail: I’m not sure what it does, but I believe it has something to do with its boy parts; females don’t seem to have these structures. Plus, it looks pretty cool.

This is a honkin’ big moth. It’s easy to tell, because the fence is a good measuring stick: every four squares is 1 cm. With wings folded, the wingspan is still 15 squares, or 3.75 cm (about 1.5 inches). And the body is the same size; fifteen squares long.

Look at how big the eye is:

The caterpillars feed on vines in the Vitaceae family, according to one website, “In Florida larvae have been reported on Possum Vine (Cissus sicyoides) and Pepper Vine (Ampelopsis arborea).” I don’t know of any of those vines in my immediate neighborhood, but I imagine there are some; otherwise, why would the adult moth be hanging around?

In an unrelated bit of bad luck that reminds me why a naturalist should ALWAYS have a camera at hand, instead of just a cell phone camera, see the photo below:

Tersa sphinx moth via cell phone camera. Looked focused in the field. Wasn't.

It’s a sphinx moth caterpillar I encountered as I was riding my bike home after dropping the boys off at day care the other morning. It was a stunning, glorious caterpillar, which is why it caught me eye. And the picture above is the best record I could get of it; I simply couldn’t tell from the cellphone screen how execrable the focus was. Rats!

New backyard moth: Anticarsia gemmatalis


I was cleaning the pool deck the other day and noticed a very odd moth flying around trying to get away from the concrete and glass of the built environment and back into the natural world where it would be much more at home. As you can see, it made it:

And it has a very impressive cryptic camouflage, looking for all the world like a dead leaf; the picture above shows one of the few angles where you might even begin to suspect that it’s not actually a dropped leaf. It has an intricate network of “veins” and even a “midrib” stripe, as this dorsal view shows:

This moth goes by the common name Velvetleaf caterpillar moth. Its taxonomic name, Anticarsia gemmatalis is rather interesting. The specific epithet comes from the Latin gemma, bud, and talis, ankle. You can see how descriptive that name is in the detail shot here:

Kind of reminds me of the good old leaf-footed bug, Chondrocera laticornis.

The genus name, Anticarsia, is a bit more puzzling. Anti, of course, means “against,” “opposed to,” while carsios is Greek for “crosswise.” I’m not sure whether we’re really supposed to translate the genus name as “anti-crosswise,” but it’s interesting to think about…

The cryptic coloration is pretty important to this moth because it’s one of the most economically important soybean pests in Florida and the Southeast. According to the Featured Creatures website run by UF/IFAS,

Infestations of the caterpillar occur in the late summer months and can cause great damage to soybean and other legume crops if not managed. The caterpillar is able to strip fields of soybean foliage in five to seven days

So I guess it’s a good thing my little 1/4 acre doesn’t rely too heavily on soybean exports for its modest income.

Zebra Heliconian larvae


Back around Labor Day I wrote a couple of short pieces about the various egg-laying episodes I’ve seen on the hybrid passionvine in our back yard. This particular plant is a cross between our native Passiflora incarnata and a Mexican variety, thus explaining why our “3-lobed” native has 5-lobed leaves. The star of the September post was our state butterfly, the Zebra Heliconian (Heliconius charithonia); in that article I showed a few pictures of the adult form and the eggs. But I wasn’t able to hit for the cycle—the life cycle, that is—meaning showing photos of egg, larva, chrysalis, and adult. I posted the pictures I had: the adult butterfly and the egg. While I still haven’t got the complete cycle, I’m only missing the triple, because today I got the double: a good photo of the larval form, the caterpillar.

While it’s true that passionvines have developed some chemical defenses against herbivory, the heliconians have outsmarted the plants, incorporating those chemical defenses into their own chemical defenses against lepidivory (to coin a term). And now there are quite a few heliconian caterpillars (all Zebras) on the vine. Here’s what initially attracted my attention:

Isn’t it an interesting caterpillar? White body with black spots and black spines all over the body. According to Minno et al, the eggs are laid singly, but several other sources agree that the eggs are laid in clusters. That is, they’re not in rafts, each egg touching the next, but they are laid in loose aggregations. I suppose the authors are technically accurate, but for a lay audience the phrase “singly” is a bit misleading.

The photo above was taken with an older lens that doesn’t allow me to get as close to the subject as I’d like. While it has a nominally “better” zoom factor (80mm) than the lens in the photos below (zooms “only” to 55mm), the newer lens has a much closer focal point, so you don’t need anywhere near as much zoom. This find was so exciting that I went back in the house to get the newer lens; it’s hard to describe how much better the close-focus lens works, so I’ll just let the pictures speak for themselves.

Here’s a “thumbnail” shot of a single caterpillar and a few eggs:

Did you notice the “holes” running along the length of the animal? If you look closely, you’ll see that there is one “hole” per abdominal segment, except for the first two segments. These holes are called spiracles and they allow the caterpillar to breathe. On some species, the last pair of holes is larger than the others, as they have to supply the entire posterior of the animal with oxygen while the others only have to supply their own individual segment.

Here is a pair of Zebra larvae. I don’t think they’re trying to eat each other (these caterpillars are not described as being cannibalistic, unlike Giant Swallowtail larvae), but they certainly do look like they’re in close communion:

And here is the by-now traditional thumb shot of the pair:

If you clicked any of the pictures above for the larger version, you probably noticed that these caterpillars have yellow heads. Here again Minno et al’s description of the caterpillar is a bit misleading; they say that the head is white. This must be a variable character, because it’s clearly yellow in the photos.

Did you also notice the color of the spots on the bodies? Some larvae have black spots while others have brown. I wonder if that’s a function of age, or sex, or some other character, or it might just be random. Do younger larvae have brown spots that deepen to black (or vice versa)? Or do females, which I believe are browner than the males as adults, have the brown spots, while the male caterpillars have black? (I’ve not been able to find a reference that confirms my hunch that female adults are browner than males, but I thought I read it somewhere…)

One interesting thing about the adult form of this butterfly is that it is relatively long lived. While other butterflies feed on nectar alone, the Zebra (and other heliconians as well) supplements its diet with pollen. Apparently this richer food source enables the Zebra to live for several months, rather than the days to weeks of other types of butterfly.

Hooray for Heliconius! Hooray for Zebras!

Zebra. Lion Country Safari, Loxahatchee, FL, October 24, 2011.

No, not that kind of zebra. This kind:


Late October


It’s late October, and in South Florida that means it’s going to be either windy, or hot, or both. Today we’ve got a bit of both: a steady 7–8 mph east wind, with gusts up to 14 mph, and a temperature of 83°F. Mercifully, the humidity is relatively low (under 60%), so the heat index isn’t really an issue,  but it sure feels hot after the traditional pre-Halloween cool spell we had last weekend. (And for some reason, the weather is never nice on Halloween day.)

When the weather’s this hot and the breeze is blowing, it gets harder and harder to get outside looking for things to take pictures of (nothing makes for blurry pictures like an unanticipated gust of wind through the field!). But I went outside anyway, because I had a few things I wanted to investigate.

One of these is in the back yard, where we have one spindly stalk of milkweed (Asclepia curassavica) growing up near one of our beauty berries (Callicarpa americana). For weeks now I’ve been seeing milkweed butterflies, mostly Queens (Danaus gillipus) visiting that plant and nectaring and hovering as if considering laying eggs. But I’ve never seen an egg on it. Today, though, I decided to investigate yet again, and I’m glad I did. I may have missed the egg, but I did find a relatively early instar queen larva up in the flower head:

These cousins of the monarch butterfly (D. plexippus) look very similar to that familiar long-distance migrant, both in the larval and adult stages. And since as larvae they eat the same poisonous plants as well (milkweeds), these species serve as partners in a vast Muellerian mimic complex. (Muellerian mimicry is where distasteful species resemble each other so that predators learn to avoid all members of the complex after a distasteful encounter with one of them.) These butterflies, along with other milkweed-eating Danaus species like the Soldier butterfly (Danaus eresimus) and an unrelated willow-feeding species, the Viceroy (Basilarchia archippus), all benefit from their similar appearance.

Honestly, though, the larvae of the four species are rather dissimilar, except for the queen and monarch larvae, but the adult forms are confusingly similar both to beginning butterfly-watchers and to the insect’s predators (birds, lizards, etc.). And, since all members of the complex taste bad (these are not Batesian mimics, where tasty species masquerade as yucky ones), their survival is enhanced by their convergent coloration.

To get an idea of how similar these butterflies are, here’s a Viceroy pair I saw at Fern Forest back in 2007:

note how the orange and black aposematic (warning) coloration is very similar to that of the familiar Monarch:

If you look closely at the monarch and queen larvae, you can see that there is one “easy” way to distinguish the two: Monarchs (below) have two pairs of fleshy filaments, one fore and one aft, while Queens (see first picture, above) have a third pair amidships:

So if you’re wondering which milkweed caterpillar you’ve got, count the “antennae” (they’re not antennae, but they do appear to be sensory apparatus) and you’ll have your answer!

At the beginning, I mentioned that I had a few things I wanted to investigate; more on that in a later post. Enjoy!

Plume moth


Last week while I was out taking pictures of the muhly grass that’s just now beginning to flower (a sure sign of fall here in “seasonless” Florida), I ran across a flying beast that introduced me to a new lepidopteran family: the plume moths, Pterophoridae. These unusual little (and I mean little—these guys are tiny! The one I photographed has a wingspan of about 20mm [that’s 3/4 inch to you and me in daily life]) guys have very cryptic body shapes to help them hide in the grasses where they thrive. Part of that camouflage consists of little bristly projections sticking out here and there on their bodies that helps to break up their body outline. But the modification that gives the group its name (in both English and taxonomic-speak) are the wispy, feathery “plumes” on most species’ wings (that link takes you to the Moth Photographers’ Group page devoted to unidentified pterophorideans).

They also have a very characteristic T-shaped resting posture, as you can see in this photo I took last week (and almost all photos of pterophoridans):

I haven’t been able to get an ID on this species, but that’s not terribly surprising. According to,

While the family Pterophoridae is easily identified, species determinations are more challenging, often requiring dissection and preparation of genitalia slides. There are currently 159 described species known from North America north of the Mexican border. Descriptions of at least 10 new species are anticipated along with some fluctuation in the total number of species from changes in synonymies.

Since I’m not really a dissection kind of guy, I’m content to have learned about a new component of my little patch of south Florida habitat.

Here’s a better shot of the bristles that cover this animal’s body:

There are probably some plume moths in your yard; why not take a look?

Backyard butterfly: Cassius Blue


One great thing about working from home is that it’s relatively easy to see wonderful things on your lunch break—that is, if you’ve planted the right backyard habitat. Last week I wrote about the butterfly-attracting qualities of Heliotropium angiospermum, or Scorpion’s-Tail, which is conveniently located between my pool and the backyard fence. Back then, I was captivated by the sight of a Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos) butterfly resting on one of the exquisitely sculpted leaves of this showy little flower.

Today I went outside to see who else might have been visiting (before the Pearl Crescent there was the Mallow Scrub-Hairstreak), and as you can see from the photo below, today it was the turn of Leptotes cassius. This handsome little devil is the common and widespread (well, in Florida and Texas, anyway, although the two populations are geographically distant enough that they have been recognized as two separate subspecies, theonus in Florida, and striata in Texas) Cassius Blue butterfly:

These little guys are abundant in my neighborhood; I’ve seen up to half a dozen at once chasing each other off of favored perches on this little flower, so I’m pretty sure someone here has one of their many host plants in the pea family (Fabaceae). In fact, I think the large tree on the side of my house, one whose ID I was pretty uncertain of until researching this post, is one of the hosts. That tree has the powder-puff seeds, the long pods, and the compound, fine-textured, feathery leaves of the lovely Florida native False or Wild-Tamarind (Lysiloma latisiliquum):

One of the advantages to keeping this weblog is that research from one area (butterflies) leads naturally into knowledge about others (the most likely ID of my mystery tree!). Yay, blogging!

Here’s another shot of the foliage:

According to Rufino,

Wild-tamarind plays an extremely important role in the ecology of South Florida hammocks. It is a fast-growing pioneer species. Seedlings establish themselves in open, sunny areas and quickly grow into large shade trees that serve as “nurse” trees for a wide array of hammock species needing such a canopy to become established. [In fact, it’s doing that for my Pearlberry shrub right now!]

If I ever find a caterpillar in this tree, I’ll be sure to post about it. The branches are pretty far above the ground, though, so it’s not too likely anytime soon.

Early morning lepidoptera

Pearl crescent's underwing, showing the diagnostic "crescent."

Was out early last Sunday mowing (with a reel mower, no motors) the lawn (all volunteer plants, not watered except by the rain) and watching the boy play in the sandbox when I noticed this striking little butterfly on our good old Florida native scorpion’s-tail (Heliotropium angiospermum, which is a wonderful little plant that I need to write up soon):

The butterfly’s name is Phyciodes tharos, Pearl Crescent. Taxonomists have decided that butterflies like this belong to the family Nymphalidae, subfamily Nymphalinae. That means it’s a “true” brush-footed butterfly. What’s a “brushfoot”? That means unlike most insects, with six fully functional legs, their forelegs are greatly reduced: they’re just brushes, not legs.

Here is a picture of the underwing:

You can see from this shot that there are four, not six, legs on the undercarriage. Look more closely at either picture (upperwing or underwing) and you’ll probably spot lots and lots of crescent-shaped markings; they (actually, a specific series of them) are what give this group of butterflies the common name “crescents”:

Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos), underwing detail.

From the underwing to the upperwing, crescent markings abound:

Phyciodes tharos hindwing detail (upperwing).

Here’s another crescent on the forewing topside, in nearly the same location as the one on the hindwing underneath:

Pearl crescent forewing detail. Boca Raton, FL, July 17, 2011.

Can you guess which of these groups of crescent-shaped markings gives the group its name?


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