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biodiversity explorer

the web of life in southern Africa

Acherontia atropos (Death's head hawkmoth)

[= Sphinx atropos]

Life > Eukaryotes > Opisthokonta > Metazoa (animals) > Bilateria > Ecdysozoa > Panarthropoda > Tritocerebra > Phylum: Arthopoda > Mandibulata > Atelocerata > Panhexapoda > Hexapoda > Insecta (insects) > Dicondyla > Pterygota > Metapterygota > Neoptera > Eumetabola > Holometabola > Panorpida > Amphiesmenoptera > Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies) > Glossata > Coelolepida > Myoglossata > Neolepidoptera > Heteroneura > Ditrysia > Apoditrysia > Obtectomera > Macrolepidoptera > Bombycoidea > Family: Sphingidae (hawkmoths) > Subfamily: Sphinginae

Acherontia atropos (Death's head hawkmoth)  

Acherontia atropos (Death's head hawkmoth)Brits, Northwest Province, South Africa, 9 October 2011. [photo Mike Nyenes ]




Life cycle


When handled the moth emits a loud squeaking sound made using the curled up proboscis. The adult moth raids bee hives for honey.

Photo H.L. O'Heffernan, Iziko


Eggs are laid singly on leaves of a wide variety of plant species but especially on those in the potato family (Solonaceae). 

Photo H.L. O'Heffernan, Iziko

1st instar larva.

Photo H.L. O'Heffernan, Iziko

2nd instar larva.

Photo H.L. O'Heffernan, Iziko

Final (5th) instar larva

When disturbed, the caterpillar is able to make a clicking sound by clashing its mandibles together. The sound is evidently similar to that made by clicking the finger-nail under the thumb nail or to the sound made by an electric spark.

Photo H. Robertson,  Iziko


Photo H.L. O'Heffernan, Iziko


The larva buries itself in soft soil about 15 cm below the soil surface and makes an earthen cell around itself by pressing back the soil with its head. Over a period of about two weeks it forms the pupal skin and pupates. The pupal stage lasts  2-3 weeks in summer, or if it is at the end of summer, it might overwinter in this state and emerge once temperatures warm up.

Photo H.L. O'Heffernan, Iziko



Found throughout Africa, Madagascar and most of Europe. A slightly different form, regarded by some as a separate species, is found throughout Asia. 

Derivation of name

The Death's head hawk moth is so called because of the skull-like pattern on the thorax. As far as the latin name is concerned, according to Pinhey (1975): "Atropos, one of the Fates, was a daughter of Nox and Erebus and was illustrated... with veiled face and a pair of scissors to cut the thread of life. This is the thoracic pattern of a mask with scissors below it. A sinister but undeserved portrait."

Host-plants in southern Africa

Eggs are laid on, and larvae feed on, a wide variety of plants including:

Tecoma capensis (Cape Honeysuckle)  
Spathodea campanulata  
Gossypium sp. (cotton)  
Hoslundia opposita  
Cannabis sativa (Hemp, Dagga)  
Schrebera alata  
Jasminum spp. (Jasmine)  
Solanum (Potatoes and others)  
Lycopersicum esculentum (Tomato)  
Physalis peruviana (Cape Gooseberry)  
Withania somnifera  
Lantana (Tick berry)  



Text by Hamish Robertson, Iziko.