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The Elephant Hawk Moth Is the ‘Ugly Duckling’ of Moths

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You can’t tell what kind of extravagant beauty a creature will become when they’re just a baby. Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of “The Ugly Duckling” proves this is officially A Thing. The elephant hawk moth (Deilephila elpenor) might be the ugly duckling of our time — of all times.

An adult elephant hawk moth is breathtakingly beautiful, shaped like a futuristic jet, its wings and body are patterned with downy gold and magenta scales. It’s enough to make you swoon. The appearance of the babies, however, is where the elephant hawk moth gets its name. An elephant hawk moth caterpillar is usually dark colored (although sometimes they’re bright green) and supposedly looks like an elephant’s trunk, but anybody who has ever taken a small dog on a walk knows that it looks like chihuahua poop.

The elephant hawk moth is common in Europe and is one of the commonest hawk moths in the British Isles, widely distributed throughout much of England, Wales, Northern Ireland and parts of Scotland, but its range spans northern Africa and most of Asia to Japan as well.

Like most moths, they are nocturnal, spending their nights foraging for flower nectar. They have incredibly keen smell and color eyesight, which helps them find flowers in the dark. They’re a member of a larger group of moths called hawk moths, or sphinx moths — you might be familiar with one group of the species, the death’s head hawk moths, which starred in the 1991 thriller “The Silence of the Lambs.”

Hawk moths are known for their fast wingbeats and speedy, acrobatic, often deafeningly loud flight sounds — a hawk moth on the wing can be mistaken for a hummingbird. Plus, they have the longest tongues of any moth, which comes in handy when slurping nectar out of flowers. Some hawk moth species have tongues 14 inches (36 centimeters) long!

Adult elephant hawk moths are showy, even among a particularly charismatic group of moths, which leads people to wonder, are they dangerous? While it’s true that very colorful butterflies and moths often signal high toxicity, elephant hawk moths are entirely harmless — they don’t sting (as the caterpillars of some moths do) and won’t poison your dog or neighborhood birds. They probably evolved to look like a Victorian throw cushion mainly to attract mates in the dark.

HowStuffWorks may earn a small commission from affiliate links in this article.

Research published in May 2020 in the journal Biology Letters found that, in some ways, moths might be as critical to plant pollination as bees.

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Alexa Liv


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