The Goth Moth

Kelly’s Field Notes

Common Name: Death’s-head Hawkmoth

Order: Lepidoptera

Family: Sphingidae

Genus: Acherontia



You can’t miss that human skull shape on their backs! All three species look very similar and are nocturnal. Death’s-head hawkmoths have a wingspan of around 13 cm (5 in) and a body length of 6 cm (2.4 in). These are chunky moths! Also, and kind if alarmingly, adults have banded abdomens that resemble a rib cage.

Caterpillars come in three colors: green, yellow, or mottled brown. They are large caterpillars at full size before pupating, growing up to 12.7 cm (5 in) in length. They also have a horn shaped protrusion on their tail end, which changes in color and shape as the caterpillar molts. Why the horn exists in these and other caterpillars is a bit of a mystery, a few theories are they are a visual deterrent against predators, camouflage to resemble a stem, or maybe to aid in stability when the larvae are small. The horn is not rigid at all, it’s pretty floppy and harmless. Caterpillars will attempt to bite when disturbed!

Life Cycle:

Like other moths, the death’s-head hawkmoth goes through 4 stages: egg, larvae (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis), adult. Females can lay up to 200 or so eggs, mating and creating multiple broods. They take between 7 and 10 days to hatch. Once hatched, the larvae go on the hunt for plants to munch. To add to their mystique, one group of the many types of plants they feed are the nightshades! The caterpillars will eat for about 3-5 weeks before they are ready to pupate. Then, they burrow under the ground about 15cm (6 in) to pupate while they overwinter. They remain in the pupal stage for about 3 weeks before emerging as adults. The adults live for up to 6 weeks.

Super Powers:

Death’s-head Hawkmoths in Culture:

Book Recommendations:

Harris, Thomas, 1940-. The Silence of the Lambs. New York :St. Martin's, 1989.


Cowan, Frank. Curious Facts in the History of Insects: Including Spiders and Scorpions. A Complete Collection of the Legends, Superstitions, Beliefs, and Ominous Signs Connected with Insects; Together with Their Uses in Medicine, Art, and as Food; and a Summary of Their Remarkable Injuries and Appearances. JB Lippincott & Company, 1865.

Devi, S. Jamuna, and K. Ramaraju. "Death's head hawk moth, Acherontia styx westwood (Lepidoptera: Sphingidae)-Its taxonomy and biology." Indian Journal of Entomology 78.2 (2016): 111-116.

Kitching, I. The biology of death’s head hawkmoths, lepidopteran kleptoparasites of honey bees. Natural History Museum, 2006.

Menz, Myles HM, et al. "Individual tracking reveals long-distance flight-path control in a nocturnally migrating moth." Science 377.6607 (2022): 764-768.

Robischon, Marcel. "Environmental and Cultural History of the Death's Head Hawkmoth." Environment and History 25.3 (2019): 451-474.