Acherontia atropos

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African death's head hawkmoth
Acherontia atropos MHNT dos.jpg
Female
Acherontia atropos MHNT ventre.jpg
Female underside
Scientific classification edit
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Arthropoda
Class: Insecta
Order: Lepidoptera
Family: Sphingidae
Genus: Acherontia
Species:
A. atropos
Binomial name
Acherontia atropos
Acherontia atropos distribution map.png
Distribution map

     All year distribution      Summer distribution possible

Synonyms
  • Sphinx atropos Linnaeus, 1758
  • Acherontia sculda Kirby, 1877
  • Acherontia solani Oken, 1815
  • Acherontia atropos charon Closs, 1910
  • Acherontia atropos confluens Dannehl, 1925
  • Acherontia atropos conjuncta Tutt, 1904
  • Acherontia atropos diluta Closs, 1911
  • Acherontia atropos extensa Tutt, 1904
  • Acherontia atropos flavescens Tutt, 1904
  • Acherontia atropos griseofasciata Lempke, 1959
  • Acherontia atropos imperfecta Tutt, 1904
  • Acherontia atropos intermedia Tutt, 1904
  • Acherontia atropos moira Dannehl, 1925
  • Acherontia atropos myosotis Schawerda, 1919
  • Acherontia atropos obscurata Closs, 1917
  • Acherontia atropos obsoleta Tutt, 1904
  • Acherontia atropos pulverata Cockayne, 1953
  • Acherontia atropos radiata Cockayne, 1953
  • Acherontia atropos suffusa Tutt, 1904
  • Acherontia atropos variegata Tutt, 1904
  • Acherontia atropos violacea Lambillion, 1905
  • Acherontia atropos virgata Tutt, 1904

Acherontia atropos, the (African) death's-head hawkmoth, is the most widely recognized of three species within the genus Acherontia (the other two being Acherontia lachesis and Acherontia styx). It is most commonly identified by the vaguely skull-shaped pattern adorning the thorax, the characteristic from which its common and scientific names are derived. The species was first given its scientific name by Carl Linnaeus in his 1758 10th edition of Systema Naturae.

Death's-head hawk moths are large, ranging from 3.5 to 5 inches (80-120 mm) as adults.[1] The upper wings are dark, creating a stark contrast between them and the lower wings, which range from a bright yellow to a light cream, yellow being the more common.

A. atropos appears in popular media, including the films The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Dracula (1958).[2]

It is commonly found in the southern part of Europe and throughout much of Africa, from where it is considered to be a native species. Annually, A. atropus migrates to parts of Britain, most numerously to the British Isles, where it is less commonly seen than in its native place of residency.[2]

Appearance[edit]

Acherontia atropos is a large hawk moth with a wingspan of approximately 80–120 mm[3] (about 3.5 to 5 inches), making it the largest moth in a number of the regions in which it resides. An adult A. atropos has the typical wing and body structure seen in the family Sphingidae. The upper set of wings are brown with hints of yellow, amber, charcoal and cream; the lower wings are yellow with two brown stripes fashioned in waves extending diagonally across the surface. At rest, the wings of the moth fold downwards, concealing the hindwings behind the forewings.

The abdomen of A. atropos is robust and is covered in brown, feathery down. Yellow striping that highly resembles the colour patterns of a hornet extends part way across each abdominal segment. The intensity and distribution of colour can vary widely in individual specimens, with some individuals occasionally found expressing an indistinguishable "skull-like" pattern on the thorax.

Sexual dimorphism

Like in most Lepidoptera, female moths of this species tend to be larger than males, appearing bulkier and sporting larger, more robust abdomens.

The abdomen of a male Acherotia atropos is less broad, with a pointed distal (lower) abdominal segment. In contrast, the females of the species have a distal abdominal segment that is rounded off at the tip. Antennae seen on a male are thinner and shorter than the antennae seen on a female.[4] There are no pattern or colour changes related to the sex of an A. atropos.

Behaviour[edit]

This species displays a number of behaviours not normally seen in Lepidoptera.

Unlike most moths, which generate noise by rubbing external body parts together, all three species within the genus Acherontia are capable of producing a "squeak" from the pharynx, a response triggered by external agitation. The moth sucks in air, causing an internal flap between the mouth and throat to vibrate at a rapid speed. The "squeak" described is produced upon the exhalation when the flap is open. Each cycle of inhalation and exhalation takes approximately one fifth of a second.[5]

It is unclear exactly why the moth emits this sound. One thought is that the squeak may be used to deter potential predators. Due to its unusual method of producing sound, the squeak created by Acherontia atropos is especially startling.[5] Another hypothesis suggests that the squeak relates to the moth's honey bee hive raiding habits. The squeak produced from this moth mimics the piping noise produced from a honey bee hive's queen, a noise in which she utilizes to signal the worker bees to stop moving.[5]

Etymology[edit]

Acherontia atropos receives both its species and genus names from bodies relating to death or dark subjects.

The species name atropos relates to death, and is named after the Greek goddess Atropos. Atropos was one of the three Moirai, goddesses of fate and destiny.[6] According to Greek mythology, the three Moirai decide the fate of humans, making them a lesser symbol of death.[6]

The genus name Acherontia is in relation to Acheron, a river located in Epirus, Greece.[7] In mythology, Acheron was thought to be a pathway that lead to Hades due to the large, dark gorges it flowed through. In Greek mythology, Acheron is a river in Hades, and the name itself occasionally refers directly to the underworld.[7]

Distribution[edit]

Acherontia atropos occurs throughout the Middle East and the Mediterranean region, much of Africa down to the southern tip, and increasingly as far north as southern Great Britain due to recently mild British winters. It occurs as far east as India and western Saudi Arabia, and as far west as the Canary Islands and Azores. It invades western Eurasia frequently, although few individuals successfully overwinter.[8]

Development[edit]

There are several generations of Acherontia atropos per year, with continuous broods in Africa. In the northern parts of its range the species overwinters in the pupal stage. Eggs are laid singly under old leaves of Solanaceae: potato especially, but also Physalis and other nightshades. However it also has been recorded on members of the Verbenaceae, e.g. Lantana, and on members of the families Cannabaceae, Oleaceae,[9] Pedaliaceae and others. The larvae are stout with a posterior horn, as is typical of larvae of the Sphingidae. Most sphingid larvae however, have fairly smooth posterior horns, possibly with a simple curve, either upward or downward. In contrast, Acherontia species and certain relatives bear a posterior horn embossed with round projections about the thicker part. The horn itself bends downwards near the base, but curls upwards towards the tip.

The newly hatched larva starts out light green with yellow stripes diagonally on the sides, but darken after feeding. In the second instar, it has thorn-like horns on the back. In the third instar, purple or blue edging develops on the yellow stripes and the tail horn turns from black to yellow. In the final instar, the thorns disappear and the larva may adopt one of three colour morphs: green, brown or yellow. Larvae do not move much, and will click their mandibles or even bite if threatened, though the bite is effectively harmless to human skin. The larva grows to about 120–130 mm, and pupates in an underground chamber. The pupa is smooth and glossy with the proboscis fused to the body, as in most Lepidoptera.[8]

Life cycle
Larva (caterpillar)
Posterior of mature larva
Pupa
Imago

Folklore[edit]

Detail of the Acherontia atropos skull

In spite of the fact that Acherontia atropos is perfectly harmless except as a minor pest to crops and to beehives,[10] the fancied skull pattern has burdened the moth with a negative reputation, such as associations with the supernatural and evil. There are numerous superstitions to the effect that the moth brings bad luck to the house into which it flies, and that death or misfortune may be expected to follow. More prosaically, in South Africa at least, uninformed people have claimed that the moth has a poisonous, often fatal, sting (possibly referring mainly to the proboscis, but sometimes to the horn on the posterior of the larva).[11]

It appeared in The Hireling Shepherd, in Bram Stoker's Dracula and in movies such as Un Chien Andalou and the promotional marquee posters for The Silence of the Lambs. In the latter film the moth is used as a calling card by the serial killer Buffalo Bill, and though the movie script refers to Acherontia styx, the moths that appear in the film are Acherontia atropos. In The Mothman Prophecies this moth is referred to. It also appears in the music video to Massive Attack's single, "Butterfly Caught".

The death's-head moth is mentioned in Susan Hill's gothic horror novel, I'm the King of the Castle as it is used to instil fear in one of the young protagonists.

John Keats mentioned the moth as a symbol of death in his "Ode to Melancholy": "Make not your rosary of yew-berries, / Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be / Your mournful Psyche".[12]

In José Saramago's novel Death with Interruptions, Acherontia atropos appears on the American edition's cover, and is a topic that two characters mull over.

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Death's Head Hawkmoth Acherontia atropos Linnaeus 1758". Encyclopedia of Life. Retrieved 2018-11-07.
  2. ^ a b "Death's-head Hawkmoth (Acherontia atropos)". Wildlife Insight. Retrieved 2018-11-07.
  3. ^ "Death's-head Hawk-moth Acherontia atropos -". UKMoths. Retrieved 2018-11-07.
  4. ^ Dickens, Michael; Storey, Eric (1974). The World of Moths. Reading, Berkshire: Osprey. p. 103. ISBN 0 85045 164 7.
  5. ^ a b c "Secret of "Death" Moth's Scary Squeak Revealed". National Geographic. 11 August 2015. Retrieved 2018-11-07.
  6. ^ a b "Atropos". GreekMythology.com. Retrieved 2018-11-07.
  7. ^ a b "Acheron | river, Greece". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2018-11-07.
  8. ^ a b Pittaway, A. R. (1993). The Hawkmoths of the Western Palaearctic. Harley Books, London.
  9. ^ Weaving, Alan; Picker, Mike; Griffiths, Charles Llewellyn (2003). Field Guide to Insects of South Africa. New Holland Publishers, Ltd. ISBN 1-86872-713-0.
  10. ^ Smit, Bernard (1964). Insects in South Africa: How to Control Them. Oxford University Press, Cape Town.
  11. ^ Skaife, Sydney Harold (1979). African Insect Life, Second Edition Revised by John Ledger and Anthony Bannister. Cape Town: C. Struik. ISBN 0-86977-087-X.
  12. ^ "Full Text of John Keats' "Ode to Melancholy"". Bartleby.com. Retrieved 2011-11-01.

External links[edit]