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Moths of Britain and Europe
 
Elephant Hawkmoth
Deilephila elpenor  LINNAEUS, 1758
Family - SPHINGIDAE
subfamily - MACROGLOSSINAE
Tribe -
 
 introduction | habitats | lifecycle | adult behaviour
 

Elephant Hawkmoth Deilephila elpenor, Stansted Forest, England
 
Introduction
 
There are 6 members of the genus Deilephila, of which 2 are found in Europe - elpenor & porcellus.
 
Deilephila elpenor is the larger and more beautiful of the 2 European species, and is common and widespread in southern Britain, but rarer in the north.
 
The moth gets its common name from the appearance of its caterpillar, which has been compared to the trunk of an elephant.
 
Habitats
 
This species is found in a variety of habitats including grassland, forest clearings, along hedgerows, and other places where its larval foodplant greater willowherb grows in profusion.
 
Lifecycle
 
The moths emerge in June and lay their smooth, pale green eggs singly on leaves of the foodplants greater willowherb Epilobium hirsutum ( Onagraceae ).
 
The caterpillar is brownish-grey, marked with a network of fine dark lines, much like the folds in the skin of an elephant's trunk. The anal segment bears a short horn. The first two abdominal segments each bear a pair of pink and black eye-like markings. If the caterpillar becomes alarmed, it retracts its head, which compresses the thoracic segments and causes these "false eyes" to expand. This gives the caterpillar a snake-like appearance, which presumably acts as a deterrent to predators.
 
The pupa is pale brown, freckled with dark brown. It is formed among withered leaves and bits of stem, on the surface of the ground.
 
Adult behaviour

 

The moths fly at dusk and the early part of the night, and in common with other hawkmoths have a very rapid wing-beat which enables them to fly swiftly, producing a soft whirring sound as they pass by. They are able to vary the angle of their forewings while flying, which gives them the ability to swerve with great agility, or to hover in front of their favourite nectar source - honeysuckle flowers.

 

Elephant Hawkmoths have been studied to determine whether or not nocturnal moths can perceive colour. Kelber et al found that this species has 9 light sensors in each ommatidium ( compared to between 2 - 6 in butterflies ); and used behavioural experiments to prove that the moths are able to discriminate coloured stimuli at intensities corresponding to dim starlight.

 

 

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