Comprehensive Description

Sphingidae (Sphinx Moths, Hawkmoths, Hummingbird Clearwings)
These are medium-sized to very large moths. They have long and rather fat bodies, narrow wings, and a fast flight with the capacity to hover before flowers. Sphinx Moths often fly during twilight or dawn, although some species fly during broad daylight. The wings usually display some pattern of grey, brown, and yellow, sometimes with markings of pink or blue/black eyes. However, Thysbe spp. (Hummingbird Clearwings) have partially transparent wings, and are among the members of this family that fly during the daytime. The caterpillars of Sphinx moths are large and predominantly green, sometimes with a "horn" on the posterior. They feed on many kinds of plants, including members of the Solanum family, Virginia Creeper and wild grapes, Wolfberry and Coralberry, Trumpet Creeper, willows, wild cherry, and other plants. Sphinx Moths are important pollinators of some wildflowers, including the evening primroses, bindweeds, honeysuckles, and the White-Fringed Prairie Orchid.


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Plant / pollenated
adult of Sphingidae pollenates or fertilises flower of Platanthera chlorantha
Other: minor host/prey

Plant / pollenated
adult of Sphingidae pollenates or fertilises flower of Platanthera bifolia

Plant / pollenated
adult of Sphingidae pollenates or fertilises flower of Gymnadenia conopsea
Other: major host/prey


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Molecular Biology and Genetics

Molecular Biology

Statistics of barcoding coverage

Barcode of Life Data Systems (BOLD) Stats
Specimen Records:34049
Specimens with Sequences:27517
Specimens with Barcodes:25707
Species With Barcodes:2013
Public Records:11286
Public Species:1520
Public BINs:1289
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Source: Barcode of Life Data Systems (BOLD)


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Barcode data

Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (CC BY 3.0)

© Barcode of Life Data Systems

Source: Barcode of Life Data Systems (BOLD)


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Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems



Hawk moths are important pollinators of many different plant species and are often associated with orchids (Angraecum spp.), lavender (Lavandula spp.), luehea (Luehea spp.), sea daffodil (Pancratium maritimum), and phlox (Polemoniaceae spp.). In general, hawk moths pollinate plants that have flowers with the following traits: nocturnal flower opening, white or pale coloration, sweet fragrance, horizontal to pendant posture, abundant sucrose-rich nectar, and a long nectar tube. Hawk moths insert their tongues, and sometimes their bodies, into nectar tubes to collect nectar. In doing so, they incidentally touch the flower's anthers and stigmas, transferring pollen to the same and other blossoms. Nectar tubes and hawk moth tongue lengths are often associated - a shorter tongue than tube usually does not allow a hawk moth to collect nectar and a longer tongue than tube makes the hawk moth less effective at pollen removal and pollination. These relationships range from strong one-to-one tongue- and tube-length mutualisms to more general. Hawk moths have been documented with tongues up to 14 inches long! However, the average North American hawk moth tongue is 2 1/3 inches long with the average nectar tube of flowers pollinated by North American hawk moths just over 2 inches long.

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For a complete species list of this family, see Sphingidae species list.

The Sphingidae are a family of moths (Lepidoptera), commonly known as hawk moths, sphinx moths, and hornworms; it includes about 1,450 species.[1] It is best represented in the tropics, but species are found in every region.[2] They are moderate to large in size and are distinguished among moths for their rapid, sustained flying ability.[2] Their narrow wings and streamlined abdomens are adaptations for rapid flight.

Some hawk moths, such as the hummingbird hawk moth or the white-lined sphinx, hover in midair while they feed on nectar from flowers, so are sometimes mistaken for hummingbirds. This hovering capability is only known to have evolved four times in nectar feeders: in hummingbirds, certain bats, hoverflies, and these sphingids,[3] (an example of convergent evolution). Sphingids have been much studied for their flying ability, especially their ability to move rapidly from side to side while hovering, called 'swing-hovering' or 'side-slipping.' This is thought to have evolved to deal with ambush predators that lie in wait in flowers.[3]

Sphingids are some of the faster flying insects; some are capable of flying at over 5.3 m/s (12 miles per hour).[4] They have wingspans from 4 to over 10 cm.


Vine hawk moth larva (Hippotion celerio)

Most species are multivoltine, capable of producing several generations a year if weather conditions permit.[5] Females lay translucent, greenish, flattened, smooth eggs, usually singly on the host plants. Egg development time varies highly, from three to 21 days.

A Hyles gallii caterpillar seeking a place to pupate: the colour of the caterpillar darkens before pupation.

Sphingid caterpillars are medium to large in size, with stout bodies. They have five pairs of prolegs.[5] Usually, their bodies lack any hairs or tubercules, but most species have a "horn" at the posterior end,[2] which may be reduced to a button, or absent, in the final instar.[5] Many are cryptic greens and browns, and have countershading patterns to conceal them. Others are more conspicuously coloured, typically with white spots on a black or yellow background along the length of the body. A pattern of diagonal slashes along the side is a common feature. When resting, the larva usually holds its legs off the surface and tucks its head underneath, which, resembling the Egyptian Sphinx, gives rise to the name 'sphinx moth'.[5] Some tropical larvae are thought to mimic snakes.[2][6] Larvae are quick to regurgitate their sticky, often toxic, foregut contents on attackers such as ants and parasitoids.[5] Development rate depends on temperature, and to speed development, some northern and high-altitude species sunbathe.[5] Larvae burrow into soil to pupate, where they remain for 2–3 weeks before they emerge as adults.

In some Sphingidae, the pupa has a free proboscis, rather than being fused to the pupal case as is most common in Macrolepidoptera.[2] They have a cremaster at the tip of the abdomen.[5] Usually, they pupate off the host plant, in an underground chamber, among rocks, or in a loose cocoon.[5] In most species, the pupa is the overwintering stage.

A feeding hawk moth at Olympiaki Akti (Greece)


Antennae are generally not very feathery, even in the males.[2] They lack tympanal organs, but members of the tribe Choerocampini have hearing organs on their heads.[2] They have a frenulum and retinaculum to join hind wings and fore wings.[2] The thorax, abdomen, and wings are densely covered in scales. Some sphingids have a rudimental proboscis, but most have a very long one,[2] which is used to feed on nectar from flowers. Most are crepuscular or nocturnal, but some species fly during the day.[5] Both males and females are relatively long-lived (living 10 to 30 d).[5] Prior to flight, most species shiver their flight muscles to warm them up, and, during flight, body temperatures may surpass 40 °C (.[5]

In some species, sexual dimorphism (differences in form between the sexes) is quite marked. For example, in the African species Herse convolvuli (the convolvulus or morning glory hawk moth), the antennae are thicker and wing markings more mottled in the male than in the female. Only males have both an undivided frenular hook and a retinaculum. Also, all male hawk moths have a partial comb of hairs along their antennae.[7] Females call males to them with pheromones. The male may douse the female with a pheromone[5] before mating.


Some species fly only for short periods either around dusk or dawn, while other species only appear later in the evening and others around midnight, but such species may occasionally be seen feeding at flowers during the day. A few common species in Africa, such as Cephonodes hylas virescens (the Oriental bee hawk), Leucostrophus hirundo, and Macroglossum trochilus, are diurnal.[7]


In studies with Manduca sexta, moths have dynamic flight sensory abilities due to their antennae. The antennae are vibrated in a plane so that when the body of the moth rotates during controlled aerial maneuvers, the antennae are subject to the inertial Coriolis forces that are linearly proportional to the angular velocity of the body.[8] The Coriolis forces cause deflections of the antennae, which are detected by the Johnston's organ at the base of each antenna, with strong frequency responses at the beat frequency of the antennae (around 25 Hz) and at twice the beat frequency. The relative magnitude of the two frequency responses enables the moth to distinguish rotation around the different principal axes, allowing for rapid course control during aerial maneuvers.[9]

Food plants[edit]


Bee hawk moth (Cephonodes kingii), Crows Nest, New South Wales

Sphingid larvae tend to be specific feeders, rather than generalists.[5] Compared to similarly sized saturniids, sphingids eat soft young leaves of host plants with small toxic molecules, and chew and mash the food into very small bits.[10] Some species can tolerate quite high concentrations of specific toxins. Tobacco hornworms, Manduca sexta, detoxify and rapidly excrete nicotine, as do several other related sphinx moths in the subfamilies Sphinginae and Macroglossinae, but members of Smerinthinae that were tested are susceptible.[11] The species that are able to tolerate the toxin do not sequester it in their tissues; 98% was excreted. However, other species, such as Hyles euphorbiae and Daphnis nerii, do sequester toxins from their hosts, but do not pass them on to the adult stage.[5]


Hemaris thysbe or hummingbird clearwing moth feeding on lantana flowers

Most adults feed on nectar, although a few tropical species feed on eye secretions, and the death's-head hawkmoth steals honey from bees.[5] Night-flying sphingids tend to prefer pale flowers with long corolla tubes and a sweet odour, a pollination syndrome known as 'sphingophily'.[3] Some species are quite general in visitations, while others are very specific, with the plant only being successfully pollinated by a particular species of moth.[3] Orchids frequently have such specific relations with hawk moths, and very long corolla tubes. The comet orchid, Angraecum sesquipedale, a rare Malagasy flower with its nectar stored at the bottom of a 30-cm-long tube, was described in 1822 by Aubert du Petit-Thouars, and later, Charles Darwin famously predicted there must be some specialised animal to feed from it:

"[A. sesquipetale has] nectaries 11 and a half inches long, with only the lower inch and a half filled with very sweet nectar [...] it is, however, surprising, that any insect should be able to reach the nectar: our English sphinxes have probosces as long as their bodies, but in Madagascar there must be moths with probosces capable of extension to a length of between 10 and 12 inches!"[12]

Alfred Russel Wallace published a sort of "wanted poster" (properly, a drawing in a book) [13][unreliable source?] of what this butterfly might look like, and, concurring with his colleague, added:

"[The proboscis of a hawk moth] from tropical Africa ([Xanthopan] morganii) is seven inches and a half. A species having a proboscis two or three inches longer could reach the nectar in the largest flowers of Angræcum sesquipedale, whose nectaries vary in length from ten to fourteen inches. That such a moth exists in Madagascar may be safely predicted, and naturalists who visit that island should search for it with as much confidence as astronomers searched for the planet Neptune, – and they will be equally successful."[14]

A possible species was discovered 21 years later, for which the hawk moth in question was found and described as a subspecies of the one mentioned by Wallace: Xanthopan morganii praedicta,[15] for which, the subspecific name praedicta ("the predicted one") was given. The subspecies has, however, been subsequently declared as invalid due to its similarity to mainland species.

Representative species[edit]

Around 1,450 species of hawk moth are classified into around 200 genera. Some of the best-known species are:

In popular culture[edit]

John Linnell, of the rock band They Might Be Giants, reportedly wrote the song "Bee of the Bird of the Moth" (on their album The Else) after he saw a "hummingbird moth", presumably one of the members of this family that resembles a hummingbird.[16]

Edgar Allan Poe includes a sphinx moth in his short story, "The Sphinx". The main character mistakenly thinks the moth on a window is a huge monster. Much to his surprise, his friend points out it is, in fact, very close and not on a hill in the distance.

In the 1991 film Silence of the Lambs, Buffalo Bill puts sphinx moths in the throats of his victims after he kills them. A sphinx moth is also featured on the cover.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ van Nieukerken et al. (2011). "Order Lepidoptera Linnaeus, 1758. In: Zhang, Z.-Q. (Ed.) Animal biodiversity: An outline of higher-level classification and survey of taxonomic richness". Zootaxa 3148: 212–221. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Scoble, Malcolm J. (1995): The Lepidoptera: Form, Function and Diversity (2nd edition). Oxford University Press & Natural History Museum London. ISBN 0-19-854952-0
  3. ^ a b c d Kitching, Ian J (2002). "The phylogenetic relationships of Morgan's Sphinx, Xanthopan morganii (Walker), the tribe Acherontiini, and allied long-tongued hawkmoths (Lepidoptera: Sphingidae, Sphinginae)". Zool. J. Linn. Soc. 135 (4): 471–527. doi:10.1046/j.1096-3642.2002.00021.x. 
  4. ^ Stevenson, R.; Corbo, K.; Baca, L.; Le, Q. (1995). "Cage size and flight speed of the tobacco hawkmoth Manduca sexta". The Journal of experimental biology 198 (Pt 8): 1665–1672. PMID 9319572. Retrieved 10 August 2012. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Pittaway, A. R. (1993): The hawkmoths of the western Palaearctic. Harley Books & Natural History Museum, London. ISBN 0-946589-21-6
  6. ^ Hossie, Thomas; Sherratt, Thomas (August 2013). "Defensive posture and eyespots deter avian predators from attacking caterpillar models". Animal Behaviour 86 (2): 383–389. doi:10.1016/j.anbehav.2013.05.029. Retrieved 4 February 2014. 
  7. ^ a b Pinhey, E (1962): Hawk Moths of Central and Southern Africa. Longmans Southern Africa, Cape Town.
  8. ^ McNiell Alexander, R. (February 2007). "Antennae as Gyroscopes". Science. doi:10.1126/science.1136840. 
  9. ^ Sane S., Dieudonné, A., Willis, M., Daniel, T. (February 2007). "Antennal mechanosensors mediate flight control in moths". Science. doi:10.1126/science.1133598. 
  10. ^ Bernays, E. A.; Janzen, D. H. (1988). "Saturniid and Sphingid caterpillars - 2 ways to eat leaves". Ecology 69 (4): 1153–1160. doi:10.2307/1941269. 
  11. ^ Wink, M.; Theile, Vera (2002). "Alkaloid tolerance in Manduca sexta and phylogenetically related sphingids (Lepidoptera: Sphingidae)". Chemoecology 12: 29–46. doi:10.1007/s00049-002-8324-2. 
  12. ^ Darwin, Charles (1862): On the Various Contrivances by Which British and Foreign Orchids are Fertilised by Insects, and on the Good Effects of Intercrossing John Murray, London. HTML fulltext
  13. ^ "Image at perso.orange.fr". Retrieved 2011-10-18. 
  14. ^ Wallace, Alfred Russel (1867): Creation by law. Quarterly Journal of Science 4: 470–488. HTML fulltext
  15. ^ Rothschild, Walter & Jordan, Karl (1903): A revision of the lepidopterous family Sphingidae. Novitates Zoologicae 9(Supplement): 1–972.
  16. ^ "Interpretations:Bee Of The Bird Of The Moth - TMBW: The They Might Be Giants Knowledge Base". TMBW. 2011-10-12. Retrieved 2011-10-18. 
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