Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

August 11, 2008

A Hornless Hornworm

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 2:34 pm

   The larva of the Achemon Sphinx is a sight to behold. If not exactly a thing of beauty, it is a thing of marvelous translucence. Say what you will, but I think it there is skin deep appeal to the pinkish orange body of this mega-caterpillar – almost as if it is lit from within. When viewed close up (like this view), it looks almost like a pink gummy worm with vanilla highlights. Please note that I am only saying that it has the general appearance of some bizarre candy, not that it actually tastes like one. It would probably taste more like a soy hotdog, come to think of it, since this insect feeds on Grape vines and Virginia Creepers for a living. If I had to guess, I would say it should be placed into a tiny bun before eating. I will leave this train of thought in the realm of guesswork, however, and have no plans to test out my theory either way.

  The Achemon, a member of the sphinx family, lacks the “horn” that usually defines the larvae of this group. Sphinx caterpillars are normally called hornworms (with the tomato hornworm being the most infamous) but we have a hornless hornworm in this case.  As a new hatchling, it once had this nice slender appendage coming off its tiny rear end, but shed it after the first molt. The structure is reduced down to a mere terminal butt button for the rest of larval life.

  This caterpillar does enact a typical sphinx maneuver when handled – or taste tested! When fully stretched out (see here), the creature can be quite slender. Upon touch, it retracts the head capsule back into the first several segments and the body thickens considerably (like the photo above and here). This is the sphinx-like pose that defines the family. If handled roughly, the bug can also land a pretty good bite thanks to a powerful pair of mandibles.

  Achemon, by the way, is the name of a mischievous dwarf of Greek legend. He was one of a pair of siblings that tried to play a trick on Hercules. They were caught and ridiculed by the “big H” who eventually let them go. Later, they tried to put one over on Zeus and were subsequently turned into monkeys. What this has to do with the actual species is beyond me, but it’s a good story anyway.

  During its growing life, the Achemon sphinx is normally dark purplish brown. When they reach full size – about canned wiener size – they stop eating and begin to search out a pupation site. As part of the transformation process, the creature changes color and morphs into a pink gummy worm.  This caterpillar was discovered while in the midst of this final transformative journey.  

  The Good Lord willing, and the Zeus don’t rise, this plump sphinx will pupate in the soil and wait out the winter before emerging as an adult next July. I hear that the adult moths (see here) taste like fried monkeys.

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