The skull or death sphinx (Acherontia atropos) is a very large moth, with a wingspan of between 9 and 12 cm. It has a long, thick body, with two pairs of wings, the front ones, blackish triangular on the back with yellowish spots, and the rear ones, smaller and yellow with black serrated stripes. On its thorax we can see the drawing of a human skull, an attribute that helped this invertebrate appear in such famous works as Dracula1 or the Silence of the Lambs.
Coming from subtropical Africa, it is considered the fastest lepidopteran on the planet, being able to reach 50 km/h. faculty that serves to carry out periodic migrations of enormous distances to the European continent.
Its life cycle is divided into four stages: egg, caterpillar, chrysalis and, in its adult phase, moth or butterfly.
Females lay their eggs on the back of the leaves of solanaceous plants such as persimmons, potatoes and tomatoes, although mostly in olive trees.
In the caterpillar phase they reach 130 mm. They have a very striking greenish-yellow color, with blue lines along their body.
When their cycle ends, the caterpillars excavate underground galleries of about 30 cm. to bury itself, passing into the chrysalis phase, from which a new lepidopteran will emerge.
It is the only moth capable of producing a sound audible to humans, since the rest of the moths emit ultrasound with which they are capable of sometimes misleading bats, their main predators.
When the skull sphinx feels in danger, it spreads its wings showing its abdomen, while emitting a sound that intimidates its attacker, sometimes even biting.
They are regular visitors to bee hives, as they have a great predilection for honey. As to how they manage to sneak into a hive without being attacked by bees, there are two theories, the first and the most currently accepted, tells us that they produce a pheromone that makes them go unnoticed, and the second that they emit a sound similar to bees. made by the queen bee that, together with the drawing of her thorax, camouflages them.
The death sphinx is a fascinating moth not only because of its appearance, but also because of the defense and camouflage strategies it uses to survive in the wild.
1In the novel Dracula, Bram Stoker names it in chapter XXI: “-…and at night large moths with the drawing of a skull and crossbones on the back.” Van Helsing nodded his head and whispered to me. unconscious: -The Acherontia atropos of sphinxes, commonly known as the “dead’s head moth.”