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Where adult moths are usually quite easy to identify, it becomes more difficult with their caterpillars. Fortunately, distinctive "badges" help with identification. We show well-known caterpillars with horns.

In a nutshell

  • Horn is not on the head, but on the rearmost segment of the caterpillars
  • so-called "anal horn" is typical for the species family of hawk moths (Sphingidae)
  • Depending on the age of the caterpillars, the size and color of the horn can vary greatly

Which caterpillars have a horn?

Caterpillars with horns are a characteristic feature of the so-called Phingidae, in English "swarmers". This species family of butterflies is distributed almost worldwide and is very well known. Many of the species listed below will certainly look familiar to you.

20 species of the family are native to Germany, but only 8 species are widespread and occur frequently. In contrast, around 1,200 variants of the hawkmoth are known worldwide.

What is that?

Contrary to the popular assumption that the outgrowth is on the head of the legendary unicorn, the caterpillars are actually outgrowths on the rearmost, the eighth segment of the body. One therefore also speaks of the so-called anal horn. A real function of the horn has not been researched much to this day and is therefore not known.

Notice: Although each butterfly species has its own expression of this horn, size, shape, and color vary within a species depending on the age of the caterpillar.

Horned caterpillar species from A to K

Evening Peacock (Smerinthus ocellatus)

Source: Simon A. Eugster, Smerinthus ocellatus caterpillar on apple tree, edited by Plantopedia, CC BY 3.0
  • blue-green to yellow-green color
  • white dots all over the body
  • yellow slanting side stripes
  • lighter top
  • Size: up to 80 mm
  • Horn: light blue
  • Occurrence: July to September
  • Surroundings: Willows, poplars, birches, apple and other fruit trees

Bumblebee Hawk-moth (Hemaris fuciformis)

Source: Harald Süpfle, Hemaris fuciformis - Larva 02 (HS), edited by Plantopedia, CC BY-SA 3.0
  • first light yellow, later strong green
  • light longitudinal lines on the sides
  • countless bright point warts all over the body
  • red spots on the sides
  • Size: 35 to 40 millimeters
  • Horn: initially dark, later red base with brown tip
  • Occurrence: June to early August
  • Environment: honeysuckle, honeysuckle, cleavers, deutzia, snowberries, scabious

Pine hawkmoth (Sphinx pinastri)

Source: Heigeheige, caterpillar Sphinx Pinastri, edited from Plantopedia, CC BY-SA 4.0
  • first yellow, later green basic color
  • six light yellow longitudinal lines from the first moult
  • beige to grey-brown head
  • Size: 75 to 80 millimeters
  • Horn: dark to black, split at the end
  • Occurrence: July to September
  • Environment: Pine, spruce, cedar, larch, Douglas fir

Lesser vine hawkmoth (Deilephila porcellus)

Source: Fiver, the Psychic, Caterpillar of the Lesser Vine Hawk-Moth (3), Edited by Plantopedia, CC BY-SA 3.0
  • green, later brown basic color
  • bright eyespots on the second and third segment
  • Size: up to 70 mm
  • Horn: weakly pronounced as a small hump
  • Occurrence: July to August
  • Environment: Dry grassland, roadsides, railway embankments, on bedstraws and fireweed

Caterpillar species with horn from L to P

Privet hawkmoth (Sphinx ligustri)

  • bright green color
  • seven white-pink to white-violet side stripes
  • countless yellow dots all over the body
  • Size: up to 100 mm
  • Horn: light at the base, darker towards the apex
  • Occurrence: July to early September
  • Environment: privet, lilac, ash, berry trees, honeysuckle, snowberry, spiraea

Notice: Although feared by many gardeners, the privet hawkmoth usually occurs in such small numbers that it poses no threat to the infested shrubs.

Linden Hawk-moth (Mimas tiliae)

Source: Ilia Ustyantsev from Russia, Mimas tiliae (larva) - Lime hawk-moth (caterpillar) - Бражник липовый (гусеница) (40341341545), Edited by Plantopedia, CC BY-SA 2.0
  • initially light green, later green to blue-green coloration
  • distinct yellow diagonal stripes on the sides
  • almost triangular head capsule
  • innumerable yellow tubercles all over the body
  • shortly before pupation: grey-brown above, pale green-violet below
  • Size: 55 to 65 millimeters
  • Horn: Blue or violet, anal plate red to reddish yellow
  • Occurrence: June to August
  • Surroundings: lime trees, birches, cherries

Medium vine hawkmoth (Deilephila elpenor)

Source: Oooh, Medium Vine Hawk-Moth Deilephila elpenor-003, Edited by Plantopedia, CC BY-SA 2.5
  • initially green, later brown to brown-black
  • two prominent eyespots in the front third
  • Size: up to 80 mm
  • Horn: dark, long and tapering
  • Occurrence: mid-June to August
  • Environment: willowherb, balsam, fuchsia, purple loosestrife, evening primrose

Poplar Hawkmoth (Laothoe populi)

  • bright green basic color
  • darker diagonal stripes on the sides
  • tiny light tubercles all over the body
  • lateral line of dark dots
  • Size: around 80 mm
  • Horn: yellow and rather inconspicuous, bluish tint at the base
  • Occurrence: July and August
  • Environment: poplars, willows, orchards

frequently asked Questions

Are caterpillars with horns poisonous?

Although signal colors and distinctive markings often indicate toxicity, the caterpillars are completely harmless. As a very widespread species, they are on the menu of countless native songbirds, for example.

What do we know today about the task of the horn?

It is assumed that the signaling effect of the horn is intended to deter predators and can be interpreted, for example, as a signal for poison. One speaks of "mimicry" because a non-existent property is feigned. Other functions are not yet known or researched.

Can the caterpillars use their horn?

So far it is not known that caterpillars have given the horn a function in any way. Stinging with the often pointed appendage is also not possible. The main function is probably actually the signal effect

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