ACHERONTIA [Laspeyres], 1809

Acherontia [Laspeyres], 1809, Jena. allg. Lit.-Ztg 4(240): 100.

Type species: Sphinx atropos Linnaeus, 1758.

An Old World genus comprising three species, of which two occur in the region.


All three species of Acherontia - A. lachesis, A. styx, A. atropos. Photo: © Jean Haxiare.

IMAGO: Large and heavily built, with relatively large dark forewing. Hindwing yellow with black submarginal lines. Dorsal surface of thorax with a skull-like marking. Proboscis shorter than thorax, stout and hairy, with a dorsal opening before tip. Labial palpi well separated. Antenna stout, of even thickness, with a fine terminal hook. Abdomen with yellow rib-like markings. Hindtibia with two pairs of spurs. Mid- and hindtarsi strongly compressed, without a ventral brush of long bristles at base. Pulvillus absent; paronychium reduced to form a short stumpy lobe. Squeaks if molested.

Genitalia. Male valva with a patch of large, multi-dentate friction scales exteriorly; sacculus short with two teeth.

OVUM: Oval, pale green or bluish, small for size of moth.

LARVA: Polymorphic, with a distinctly granulose yellow or light brown, downward-curving, S-shaped horn. Bears pronounced bi-coloured oblique lateral stripes and dorsal spots in the final instar. Clicks mandibles if molested.

PUPA: Smooth and glossy, with proboscis fused to body; transverse file-like ridges at base of proboscis. Cremaster broad, with two short apical spines.

HOSTPLANT FAMILIES: Trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants, mainly in the Solanaceae, Bignoniaceae, Verbenaceae and Oleaceae.


ACHERONTIA ATROPOS (Linnaeus, 1758)

GB: Death's Head hawkmoth, F: Sphinx à Tête de Mort, D: Totenkopfschwärmer, RU: Mertvaya Golova, S: Dödskalle-Svärmare, NL: Doodshoofdpijlstaart, CZ: Smrtihlav obecny, H: halálfejes lepke, E: esfinge de la muerta, calavera, PL: Zmierzchnica trupia glówka, FI: Pääkallokiitäjä, IT: sfinge testa di morto.

Sphinx atropos Linnaeus, 1758, Syst. Nat. (Edn 10) 1: 490.

Type locality: Europe.


A plate from Nemos (ca. 1895). A plate from Harris (1766).

BIOGEOGRAPHICAL AFFILIATION

Palaeotropical; Afrotropical region. Has become part of the present-day Holomediterranean faunal element.


ADULT DESCRIPTION AND VARIATION

Male Acherontia atropos, Sicily, Italy.

Wingspan: 90--130mm. As illustrated. Colour somewhat variable, especially in intensity, clarity of markings and the presence of black hindwing bands. Individuals with no skull-like marking are occasionally found (f. obsoleta Tutt). Very difficult to confuse with any other species except A. styx. (See under A. styx for distinguishing features between the two species.)


Adult Acherontia atropos, Kuwait. Photo: © Tony Pittaway Male Acherontia atropos, Canary Islands. Photo: © Tony Pittaway

ADULT BIOLOGY

The mottled forewing coloration of this species breaks up its outline when it rests by day on tree-trunks and walls or on leaves on the ground, with its wings held tent-like over the body. It is in such situations that mating pairs can sometimes be found, 'tail to tail' or 'side by side', from late evening to the following morning, although some separate after only a few hours.

Frequents cultivated areas where potato is grown and open scrub with solanaceous plants, tending to prefer drier and sunnier locations. Not as common as it used to be, due to the use of insecticides.


Typical habitat of Acherontia atropos with olive shrubs, Catalonia, Spain. Photo: © Ben Trott.

Whether in search of a mate, or feeding, A. atropos is active from dusk until after midnight. It is attracted to light and occasionally to the nectar of potato, tobacco and sweet-william flowers, and orange blossom. Many individuals have been seen to frequent bee-hives where, upon entry, they feed undisturbed on the honey, puncturing combs with their short, sharp proboscises. Moritz et al. (1991) have shown that this species makes itself 'chemically invisible' to honeybees by mimicking the cutaneous fatty acids of its hosts. If disturbed while feeding, or for that matter at any other time, the adults raise their wings, run and hop around, while emitting high-pitched squeaks. This is especially noticeable in males that have recently arrived at a light source and have not yet settled down. The source of these has been investigated by Zagorinsky, Zhantiev & Korsunovskaya (2012). Often this activity is accompanied in males by a mouldy smell given off by abdominal hairpencils (Birch, Poppy & Baker, 1990).


FLIGHT-TIME

Migrant and multivoltine; in its resident range, normally from March/April to August/September, although occasional specimens are on the wing in February and October. Continuous-brooded from North Africa southwards, where the winter is passed as a larva or pupa. Farther north, mainly during August, September and October as the offspring of immigrants in June and July.


EARLY STAGES

OVUM: Oval, 1.5 x 1.2mm, matt green or greyish blue with a slight polygonal network on its surface (evident only under magnification). Changes to golden buff just before emergence. Generally laid singly, low down underneath old leaves of the hostplant.


Egg of Acherontia atropos. Photo: © Tony Pittaway

LARVA: Full-fed 120--130mm. Polymorphic: green, brown, yellow or pale creamy-yellow.


Unfed first instar larva of Acherontia atropos. Photo: © Tony Pittaway Second instar larva of Acherontia atropos. Photo: © Tony Pittaway Third instar larva of Acherontia atropos. Photo: © Tony Pittaway Fourth instar larva of Acherontia atropos (yellow form). Photo: © Tony Pittaway Fourth instar larva of Acherontia atropos (pale form) on olive, Catalonia, Spain. Photo: © Ben Trott. Immature final instar larva of Acherontia atropos (yellow form). Photo: © Tony Pittaway

On hatching, the 6mm-long larva consumes its egg-shell. Initially light, frosted yellow (the frostiness being imparted by small, closely packed, pale yellow tubercles and lines), it quickly darkens to green after feeding on leaf material. At this stage the horn is black and disproportionately long, with a bifurcate tip. In the second instar, thorn-like tubercles adorn the dorsal surface of the thoracic segments. In the third instar, blue or purple edging to the yellow lateral stripes appears and the still disproportionately large horn is now yellow with a black base. After the next moult the colours become more vivid: dark purple spots cover the dorsal surface from abdominal segment 1, with yellow replacing all the black pigmentation of the horn. However, it is only in the final instar that the horn assumes its characteristic down-curved shape, the dorsal tubercles vanish and yellow and brown colour-forms appear in addition to the more normal green.


Final instar brown larval form of Acherontia atropos on olive, Catalonia, Spain. Photo: © Ben Trott. Final instar yellow larval form of Acherontia atropos. Photo: © Tony Pittaway Final instar yellow larval form of Acherontia atropos (dorsal view). Photo: © Tony Pittaway

Initially, the small larva clings to a vein on the lower surface of a leaf, nibbling small holes in its side between periods resting in a sphinx-like posture. Later, size and weight necessitate the use of a whole petiole or stem as a resting platform, with the well-camouflaged larva hanging from it. Whatever their size, larvae are extremely inactive, moving only in order to find a fresh leaf. This leads to severe and noticeable denudation over a small area. If disturbed, large larvae will repeatedly click their mandibles and may even bite an attacker severely.

Prior to pupation, the fully-grown larva darkens over a period of several hours, during which stage it anoints its whole body with 'saliva'; this appears to hasten the darkening process. This completed, a suitable location for pupation is sought.


Final instar brown larval form of Acherontia atropos in pre-pupation colour, Simferopol, Crimea, Ukraine. Photo: © Sergey Leonov.

Generally found from July to October in Europe, but also throughout the winter in North Africa.

Major Hostplants. Most Solanaceae, especially Solanum tuberosum (potato), S. dulcamara, Lycium europaeum, L. barbarum, Hyoscyamus, Atropa belladonna (deadly nightshade), Nicotiana tabacum (tobacco) and Datura stramonium (thorn-apple/Jimson weed).

Minor Hostplants. Verbenaceae (Vitex agnus-castus), Oleaceae (Jasminum, Ligustrum, Olea and Fraxinus), Beta vulgaris, Nerium oleander, Buddleja, Cannabis sativa, Tecomaria capensis, Malus pumila, Pyrus communis, Sambucus and many other plants. An occasional local pest of olive trees (Turati & Zanon, 1922), even to this day (Stavrakis, 1976).

Recorded in the Canary Islands from Cussonia, Podranea riscasoliana, Spathodea campanulata, Tabebuia, Cordia sebestena, Jasminum, Datura, Nicotiana glauca and various species of Clerodendrum (van der Heyden, 1989).

PUPA: 75--80mm. Rich, glossy, mahogany-brown; very active. Proboscis fused to and flush with abdomen. Pupation normally takes place 15--40cm deep in a large, smooth-sided cavity. The main overwintering stage in its resident range; rarely survives European winters.


Pupa of Acherontia atropos (dorsal view). Photo: © Tony Pittaway Pupa of Acherontia atropos (ventral view). Photo: © Tony Pittaway

PARASITOIDS

Ichneumonidae: Amblyjoppa fuscipennis (Wesmael), A. proteus (Christ), Callajoppa cirrogaster (Schrank), C. exaltatoria (Panzer), Diphyus longigena (Thomson), D. palliatorius (Gravenhorst), Ichneumon cerinthius Gravenhorst, Netelia vinulae (Scopoli); Tachinidae: Compsilura concinnata (Meigen), Drino (Zygobothria) atropivora (Robineau-Desvoidy), Masicera pavoniae (Robineau-Desvoidy), Winthemia rufiventris (Macquart).

Drino atropivora has even been recorded as a parasitoid from Malta (Schembri, Gatt & Schembri, 1991).


Tachinid fly (Drino (Zygobothria) atropivora) reared from the final instar larva of Acherontia lachesis lachesis, Singapore. Photo: © Leong Tzi Ming.

DISTRIBUTION

An Afrotropical species which extends north to the Mediterranean (including the whole of North Africa and the Middle East) and across Cyprus (Lewandowski & Fisher, 2002), Turkey (Daniel, 1932; de Freina, 1979), the Republic of Georgia (Didmanidze, Petrov & Zolotuhin, 2013) to north-eastern Iran (Bienert, 1870; Sutton, 1963), the Ukraine (Dubatolov, [1999]), Turkmenistan (Danov & Pereladov, 1985; Danner, Eitschberger & Surholt, 1998), Mesopotamia (Wiltshire, 1957), Kuwait (Pittaway, 1993) and western Saudi Arabia (Wiltshire, 1986). It is also found in the Canary Islands, Madeira (Martin, Barnett & Emms, 2000) and the Azores (Meyer, 1991), and throughout Europe as a migrant, including Iceland (Wolff, 1971). Recorded as a vagrant as far north as Izvail' in european Russia (Tatarinov, Sedykh & Dolgin, 2003), and as far east as Pavlodar in north-eastern Kazakhstan, where an example was collected in September 2006 (Dubatolov & Titov, 2011).

Although resident in parts of southern Europe, a few individuals are found each year in central and northern Europe and, in some seasons, there are marked invasions, with larvae occurring in abundance during September and October. A few occasionally survive the winter as pupae, producing adults in the spring.

Extra-limital range. Tropical Africa to Ascension Island (Robinson & Kirke, 1990) and Mauritius.


Return to species list