- Sphinx atropos Linnaeus, 1758
- Acherontia sculda Kirby, 1877
Death's-head Hawk-moth, Greater Death's Head Hawkmoth
Value of species
Acherontia atropos (Greater death's head hawkmoth) is the most widely known of the three species of death's-head hawkmoth. Acherontia species are notorious for a vaguely skull-shaped pattern on the thorax.
The species name Atropos is related to death, derived from atropos that may not be turned, from a-1 + -tropos (Greek: τρόπος) from trepein to turn. Atropos was one of the three Moirai, goddesses of fate and destiny. In addition the genus name Acherontia is derived from Acheron, a river in Greece, which in Greek mythology was known as the river of pain, and was one of the five rivers of the Greek underworld.
Acherontia atropos occurs throughout the Middle East and the Mediterranean region, much of Africa down to the southern tip, and increasingly as far north as southern Great Britain due to recently mild British winters. It occurs as far east as India and western Saudi Arabia, and as far west as the Canary Islands and Azores. It invades western Eurasia frequently, although few individuals successfully overwinter.
There are several generations of Acherontia atropos per year, with continuous broods in Africa. In the northern parts of its range the species overwinters in the pupal stage. Eggs are laid singly under old leaves of Solanaceae: potato especially, but also Physalis and other nightshades. However it also has been recorded on members of the Verbenaceae, e.g. Lantana, and on members of the families Cannabaceae, Oleaceae, Pedaliaceae and others. The larvae are stout with a posterior horn, as is typical of larvae of the Sphingidae. Most sphingid larvae however, have fairly smooth posterior horns, possibly with a simple curve, either upward or downward. In contrast, Acherontia species and certain relatives bear a posterior horn embossed with round projections about the thicker part. The horn itself bends downwards near the base, but curls upwards towards the tip.
The newly hatched larva starts out a light shade of green but darkens after feeding, with yellow stripes diagonally on the sides. In the second instar, it has thorn-like horns on the back. In the third instar, purple or blue edging develops on the yellow stripes and the tail horn turns from black to yellow. In the final instar, the thorns disappear and the larva may adopt one of three color morphs: green, brown, or yellow. Larvae do not move much, and will click their mandibles or even bite if threatened, though the bite is effectively harmless to the human skin. The larva grows to about 120–130 mm, and pupates in an underground chamber. The pupa is smooth and glossy with the proboscis fused to the body, as in most Lepidoptera.
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