Sphinx moths belong to the family Sphingidae (Sphinx and Hawk Moths). Most are fairly large, with thick, furry bodies that taper toward the rear. Their narrow, angular wings are an unusual shape for a moth, and their long forewings tend to dwarf their smaller hindwings. Of the over 60 species that can be found in the eastern United States, some can be seen flying during the day as they sip nectar from gardens blossoms. Others fly at dawn or dusk, while others still are strictly night flyers.
The pandorus sphinx (Eumorpha pandorus) tends to fly around dusk, but is sometimes discovered under porch lights on a summer’s evening. This gorgeous moth is patterned with velvety browns and olive greens accented with thin streaks of pink. Its three to four-and-a-half inch wingspan is quite impressive as it searches out a nectar source, such as garden petunias. Like other sphinx moths, the pandorus has a very long proboscis with which to reach the nectar deep within these flowers.
The female pandorus sphinx moth will lay her eggs individually upon Virginia creeper and grapes. A hatching caterpillar will grow large and fat on a diet of these vines’ leaves, molting five times as it outgrows its skin. The caterpillar is green with white spots on five body segments for the first three molts, with a “horn” on its last body segment. (This harmless horn is what gives other sphinx moth caterpillars their common names, like tomato hornworm and tobacco hornworm.) A remnant black bump is all that remains when the horn disappears after the third molt. Further molts will turn the caterpillar from green to a rich chocolate brown, a startling contrast to the bright white spots on its sides. When fully mature, and a whopping three inches long, the caterpillar will crawl to the ground to pupate under the soil for the winter.
When alarmed, a sphinx moth caterpillar has the ability to retract its small head and front body segments into its body, offering it some protection. This bulkier appearance, coupled with its habit of rearing up when disturbed, gives the caterpillar a Sphinxlike posture – and possibly a clue as to where this moth family got its name.
Photos by Cindi Kobak