Critter of the Year

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Filed under Outdoor Notes

December 23, 2011

As I close out 2011, the one species that marks the year is a moth. Those who read these notes regularly may remember that last summer I went a little nuts over Sphinx moths. I posted a lot of images, but there was one image that I did not post.

Achemon Sphinx moth Caterpillar (Eumorpha achemon)

This is not a Pandorus Sphinx (Achemon Sphinx on grape)

Earlier in the summer I sent a photo of a Pandorus Sphinx caterpillar to an expert.

The expert quickly, informed me that I had misidentified it. It was an Achemon[1] Sphinx. I had never seen one before, so I posted that picture in my note on Sphinx moth caterpillars. I checked the ID against Bill Oehlke’s marvelous website and learned that, not only was it an Achemon Sphinx caterpillar, but it was fifth instar—the last instar. [2] Earlier instars have the classic sphinx caterpillar horn on the back end.

After all of my Sphinx moth posts were done, I decided to go out one more time, to stand among the primroses and watch the big moths come dropping in from over my neighbor’s cornfield.

It was a good decision.

Twilight came, and with it, the moths. They hovered from primrose to primrose, appearing suddenly, and just as suddenly, disappearing into the night.

Most were Carolinas.[3]

Carolina Sphinx (Manduca sexta)

Carolina Sphinx (Manduca sexta)

Some were the very similar Five-spotted Hawkmoth.

Carolina Sphinx (Manduca sexta)

Five-spotted Hawkmoth (Manduca Manduca quinquemaculatus)

It can be tough to tell these two apart. Counting the spots (supposed to be six on M. sexta and five on M. quinquemaculatus) never seems to work. They may hybridize as well.

Wing comparison of Manduca sexta and quinquemaculatus.

Separating Carolina from Five-spotted Hawkmoths. Don't try counting the spots; that way lies madness.

Some, smaller, were White-lined Sphinxes.

White-lined Sphinx

White-lined Sphinx (Hyles lineata)

Some were the larger Pandorus Sphinx.

Pandorus Sphinx

Pandorus Sphinx (Eumorpha pandorus) on Cleomes--I never got a good shoot over primrose. Wait 'til next year.

One, however, was none of the above. It was large, as large as the Pandorus Sphinxes, and it always seemed to be out at the edge of my flashlight’s range, moving purposefully from blossom to blossom. Its colors seemed warmer—but I had to get close enough to tell.

Now I strongly believe in the old if at first you don’t succeed maxim, but I had tried, tried again, tried yet again, and again. Four times I stalked that moth; four times I failed. Trying a fifth time might be considered the definition of insanity, so I gave it up for the night and started to walk out to the road.

The moth flew into the blossoms right in front of me and began to feed. I had enough time to grab three shots. Only one was any good:

Achemon Sphinx (Eumorpha achemon)

Critter of the Year, 2011: Achemon Sphinx (Eumorpha achemon)

an adult Achemon Sphinx—the only one I’ve ever seen.

In two months, I went from total ignorance to two decent life-cycle shots—life is good.

May God bless and keep you all through the holidays and grant you a joy-filled 2012, J.B.

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  1. Achemon, or Acmon was one of two mischievous brothers in Greek mythology. They were of the famous monkey men of Lydia called the Cercopes (Zeus got hacked off with them and changed them into monkeys—Zeus did a lot of that sort of thing).  They were once captured by Hercules, who carried them around tied upside down to his club. Apparently he let them go because they were funny.  I could not figure out what any of this had to do with a large sphinx moth until I found this terrific quote on Bill Oehlke’s site: “Those who first published descriptions and assigned scientific names to many insects, simply chose names of biblical or mythological origin without any real descriptive qualities. Their purpose was simply to set a standard for purposes of identification by assigned name. “ []
  2. Bill Oehlke, “Eumorpha achemon,” http://www.silkmoths.bizland.com/eachemon.htm []
  3. I have recently updated my “Moths” gallery to include several shots of sphinx moths from the summer of 2011. []

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One Response

  1. Jeffrey Caldwell said:

    Hi,

    I’m very interested in understanding achemon sphinx nectar plants — what species of evening primrose is it visiting in your photograph?

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