Moths of Britain and Europe
Elephant Hawkmoth
Deilephila elpenor  LINNAEUS, 1758
Superfamily - BOMBYCOIDEA
Tribe -
Elephant Hawkmoth Deilephila elpenor, Stansted Forest, Sussex  Adrian Hoskins
The family Sphingidae comprises of in excess of 1050 species worldwide. The moths are generally large in size ( up to 20cms across the wings in the case of the South American Cocytius cluentus ) and are very adept and powerful fliers with the ability to hover, and to fly backwards and sideways with ease.
The Elephant Hawkmoth Deilephila elpenor, and Small Elephant Hawkmoth D. porcellus, are both resident British species. They, together with the Bee Hawkmoths, Hummingbird Hawkmoth, Spurge Hawkmoth and Silver-striped Hawkmoths are members of the subfamily Macroglossinae - a group of moths renowned for having very long tongues that can reach into the deepest of flowers. The enormous Central American hawkmoth Amphimoea walkeri has the distinction of having the longest tongue ( proboscis ) of any known moth - it measures an amazing 30cms in length !
There are 6 members of the genus Deilephila, of which 2 are found in Europe - elpenor & porcellus.
Deilephila elpenor is the larger and more beautiful of the 2 European species, and is common and widespread in southern Britain, but rarer in the north.
The moth gets its common name from the appearance of its caterpillar, which has been compared to the trunk of an elephant.
This species is found in a variety of habitats including grassland, forest clearings, along hedgerows, and other places where its larval foodplant grows in profusion.
The moths emerge in June and lay their smooth, pale green eggs singly on leaves of the foodplants greater willowherb Epilobium hirsutum ( Onagraceae ).
The caterpillar is brownish-grey, marked with a network of fine dark lines, much like the folds in the skin of an elephant's trunk. When it walks, the caterpillar habitually sways the front segments from side to side, again reminiscent of the movement of an elephant's trunk. The anal segment bears a short horn. The first two abdominal segments each bear a pair of pink and black eye-like markings. If the caterpillar becomes alarmed, it retracts its head, which compresses the thoracic segments and causes these "false eyes" to expand. This gives the caterpillar a snake-like appearance, which presumably acts as a deterrent to predators.
The pupa is pale brown, freckled with dark brown. It is formed among withered leaves and bits of stem, on the surface of the ground.
Adult behaviour

The moths fly at dusk and the early part of the night, and in common with other hawkmoths have a very rapid wing-beat which enables them to fly swiftly, producing a soft whirring sound as they pass by. They are able to vary the angle of their forewings while flying, which gives them the ability to swerve with great agility, or to hover in front of their favourite nectar source - honeysuckle flowers.

Elephant Hawkmoths have been studied to determine whether or not nocturnal moths can perceive colour. Kelber et al found that this species has 9 light sensors in each ommatidium ( compared to between 2-6 in butterflies ); and used behavioural experiments to prove that the moths are able to discriminate coloured stimuli at intensities corresponding to dim starlight.



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