If you have an interest in natural history you tend to react rather differently to some of life’s little surprises. One of our fellow naturalists told us a story that illustrates this rather neatly. Earlier in the year she had planted up a hanging basket with petunias, busy lizzies, fuchsias etc. to put beside the front door. Last week she noticed it looked rather depleted; in fact the fuchsia had been completely defoliated. So she took it down for a closer look. The culprit was not hard to find: sitting replete on one of the bare stalks was a very large caterpillar, all of four inches long, bronze in colour, and with two pairs of eye-shaped markings near its front end. She quickly identified it as an elephant hawk-moth larva. It gets its ‘elephant’ name from the larva – not the moth – which elongates its front sections while feeding, so it’s rather like a trunk. If the caterpillar is threatened, this snout retracts and the part with the false eyes swells up, giving a distinctly alarming, snake-like effect – a good deterrent to predators.
Our friend was delighted with such a splendid specimen: she carried it indoors and established it in a temporary home (a large plastic ‘steamer’) with a ready supply of willowherb (supposed to be its main food plant), plus some fuchsia leaves for good measure. Defying the reference book, it much preferred the fuchsia! It ate steadily and continued to grow – after all, that is what caterpillars are supposed to do. After a bit of research she found that elephant hawk-moth larvae pupate in the soil and overwinter in chrysalis form. So she tenderly took her captive to local woodland and released it in a large patch of rosebay willowherb. Here’s hoping that next spring, he – or perhaps she – emerges as a gorgeous moth, resplendent in pink, bronze and green. (If it is a she, it would be interesting to know whether she lays her eggs among the willowherb or takes the trouble to seek out some fuchsias.)