Sphingidae (Hawk-moths)


Sphingidae, also known as hawkmoths, are a family of moths with about 1500 recognised species. The adults are often quite slender and agile, in some cases pollinators of flowers and excellent migrants. They are some of the best fliers among moths – often mistaken for hummingbirds, hawkmoths are able to hover in the air and are even capable of flying backwards or upside down. Some species have very long proboscides that are longer than the entire length of their body, that they can extend in flight so they can drink nectar from flowers while flying, hovering above the flower in a hummingbird like fashion.  While there are some non-feeding species, most hawkmoths rely on flower nectar as their main source of food. Typical are anal horns on the back end of the caterpillar (a hook on top of the backside above the anal prolegs). Adults, in some cases, are able to travel large distances in high velocity. Agrius convovuli, a species that migrates all the way from Africa to Europe, can reach 100km/h in a short distance, and fly at an average of 50km/h over a long distance, which is remarkable. These species often pupate in the soil or in leaf litter, preferring to burrow themselves as larvae. Sphingidae rarely spin cocoons, although a small number of species can spin a silk encasing, often enveloped in leaf litter, sand or earth. Sphingidae show a remarkable co-evolution with plants in some cases, in relation to their extremely long proboscis. Some flowers can only be pollinated by certain kinds of Sphingidae, for their nectar is hidden in extremely long spurs that are 20 to 35 centimetres long; these flowers have evolved together with the respective Sphingidae species that pollinate them with their extremely long proboscides, and are largely dependent on eachother. Famously, the example of Angraecum sesquipedale and Xantopan morganii comes to mind. Interestingly these kind of flowers are more dependent on the moths than the moths are dependent on these flowers; these Sphingidae are also seen feeding from other flowers, while the flowers themselves can only be pollinated by a single species of moth, although having an exclusive source of nectar is certainly an advantage. In general, it seems that some species of Sphingidae have no problems eating what are considered the most poisonous plants. Some populair host plants for hawkmoths include nightshades (Solanaceae), arum family (Araceae), spurge (Euphorbiaceae), very toxic plants such as Oleander and Vinca (Apocynaceae) and more. These toxins render the larvae unpalatable in several ways, offering them protection from predators. Interestingly, toxins are rarely sequestered by the fat tissue rendering them as toxic as their respective host plants (as is common with many moths that feed on toxic plants). Instead, the caterpillars of  Sphingidae seem to be able to metabolise these toxins and can use these metabolites in various ways. For example, the caterpillars of Manduca, that feed on tobacco, disperse nicotine into the air by respiration via their spiracles, warding off predators! Sphingidae larvae also have a great crop content that can contain chewed-up food for up to two days (the crop is where food is stored if eaten, before being transported to the actual stomach). When threatened, hawkmoth larvae can spit or vomit, forcefully expelling a mashed-up paste of half digested host plants which can be harmful or irritating to predators depending on the food plants; it is in fact a paste that contains the same concentrated toxins that the host plants contain.

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Citations: Coppens, B. (2019); Written by Bart Coppens; based on a real life breeding experience [for citations in literature and publications] 

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The aim of this website is to provide information about many species of moths and butterflies around the world, with a slight focus on rearing them in captivity.

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