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The elephant hawk moth (Deilephila elpenor) is a species in the family Sphingidae. Although it gets its common name from its size (and because the caterpillar looks like an elephant’s trunk), this moth is not the largest in terms of wingspan.

A lepidopteran that is often called a sphinx moth due to its very unique appearance, the facts about the elephant hawk moth are often difficult to comprehend, even for professional entomologists. But one thing’s for sure: these furry creatures are outstandingly beautiful in both form and function.

Elephant Hawk Moth Identification

Large elephant hawk moth, deilephila elpenor on Silver birch
Moth on silver birch in Cardiff, Wales, UK

The medium-sized hawk moth has a wingspan of 4.5-6.5 cm. The body shape is an elongated triangle with wings shaped like triangles and flat bodies as if they were cut off at the top to resemble the head and neck of an elephant.

In terms of colour, the striking elephant hawk moth has a golden olive body (sometimes olive green) with bright pink bars on its wings. Their wings are covered with short hairs that give them a shimmering look in sunlight.

The head and neck regions of the elephant hawk moth are very small compared to the rest of its body in proportion to its size. The head and neck region has two stick-like antennae with no eyes or photoreceptors but can sense electromagnetic signals.

Similarity To Other Moths

They can be easily mistaken for the small elephant hawk moth, which is also a remarkably similar gold and pink moth.

  • The main difference is that there is no distinct pink stripe going down the small elephant hawk moth’s abdomen.
  • As the name would suggest, the small elephant hawk moth is much smaller.
  • You’ll rarely see the two species together as they occupy different habitats, with the small moth preferring short grassland.

Elephant Hawk Caterpillar Identification

Deilephila elpenor, On A Plant Showing The distinctive Snake Like Head.
An elephant hawk moth caterpillar, taken at Bournemouth UK

The elephant hawk moth caterpillar is a rather unique looking critter with a big bulbous head that makes it look like it’s wearing a helmet. These large caterpillars have two long horns over its head that look like elephant’s trunks, and the colouration on this larva is very similar to that of an elephant.

These snake-like distinctive caterpillars have a greyish-green body with black and orange spots markings running along their sides.

Elephant Hawk Moth Behavior

Elephant hawk moths are noted for their exceptional flying abilities and can hover like hummingbirds when they feed on nectar at flowers at night-time. At dusk, they swarm in areas where flowers are abundant, such as urban gardens and grassy habitats, and will fly long distances to find them even if they have just been fed elsewhere.

A unique feature of the elephant hawk moth is that they excrete a silklike substance onto the surfaces they land on.

When threatened or disturbed, the elephant hawk moth caterpillar will drop down into the water like a stone by suddenly releasing tiny hairs all over its body, giving it enough buoyancy to float in water for up to 20 minutes.

Moth And Caterpillar Habitat

Front on low angle of a large pink and mustard elephant hawk moth on dry grass, with the compound eyes clearly visible.

Elephant hawk moths are found in North Africa, central Europe and America. 

The moths and caterpillars have a wide range of habitats. They’re commonly found in open countryside, rough grassland, woodland edges, and sand dunes. They can be seen throughout the summer months due to their resilience against heat; unlike other moth species, they can survive in temperatures up to 22 degrees Celsius.

Elephant Hawk Caterpillar Diet

The elephant hawk moth caterpillar diet is strictly herbivorous. The caterpillars feed on soft-bodied plants like ragworts and nettles, as well as various grasses and grains.

Some of their favourite foods include garden fuchsias, alfalfa, dandelions, clover, grass seeds and other succulent garden plants.

Elephant Hawk Moth Diet

During the summer months, elephant hawks tend to have a much more diverse range of foods. Adults feed on a variety of blossoms and fruits. The moths are seen flying from flower to flower in search of nectar and pollen.

Elephant Hawk Moth Breeding And Life Cycle

A beautiful Elephant Hawk-moth (Deilephila elpenor)

Mating occurs in late summer between early August and October in many areas around the world. The species mate during the night on low vegetation and flowers such as alfalfa and ragwort that are located close to their host trees.

Elephant hawk moth caterpillars pupate underground near the host plant to overwinter. The female elephant hawk moth caterpillar will lay a single egg under her body before exiting her body and then forming an earthen cell. The cell is located in or on the exterior surface of the host plant, beneath the leaf litter.

Upon hatching from the egg, the emerging green caterpillars will have two white stripes on each side of their head, and a translucent green abdomen striped yellow at midlength.

The pupal stage lasts approximately 3 weeks, during which time newly emerged moths would stay and feed on nearby host plants.

Are Elephant Hawk Moths Rare?

No, they are not classified as rare, although their populations are currently declining. They are threatened by several things, including deforestation and urbanisation, as well as pesticides and pollution in general.

Sources and References

  1. Small Elephant Hawk Moth – butterfly-conservation.org
  2. Elephant Hawk Moth and Caterpillar – saga.co.uk

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