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Large Caterpillar Identification (With Photos)

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An Identification Guide to Big Caterpillars

This easy-to-use, authoritative identification guide to the bigger caterpillars of North America and Europe will help you figure out which kind of caterpillar you have found. Most caterpillars, which are the larval form of butterflies and moths, are quite small. These caterpillars are rarely noticed by the casual observer, and in many cases survive by being small and hard to find. Others, however, are quite large, and these are the species that most people notice and wonder about.

This guide focuses on those larger caterpillars that are more likely to be noticed. If you have found a caterpillar that is as large or larger than your finger, then there is a good chance that you will be able to identify it with the help of this quick and easy guide.

The polyphemus moth has a huge green caterpillar

The polyphemus moth has a huge green caterpillar

What Is a Caterpillar?

Caterpillars are the larval stage of Lepidoptera, commonly known as butterflies and moths. They spend their days eating and storing energy for the adult butterfly or moth that they will become. Caterpillars are well-adapted to their natural surroundings. Most of them are camouflaged, so even though they're all around us, we never see most of them. They are so perfectly disguised, or have such secretive habits, that we walk right by them without ever knowing they're there. But they are!

Most caterpillars live their lives quietly eating leaves (and, of course, pooping). They rarely do any damage to the plant they live on. Sometimes, however, caterpillars can seriously harm trees and other plants. The gypsy moth caterpillar is a serious pest of oak forests in the northern US. Other caterpillars attack garden plants. If you grow tomatoes, chances are good you've come across the Tomato Hornworm, a big green monster that can destroy a tomato plant in less than a week.

Caterpillar Species Included in this Guide

  1. Tomato Hornworm
  2. White-Lined Sphinx
  3. Emperor Moths
  4. Tiger Swallowtail
  5. Luna Moth
  6. Polyphemus Moth
  7. Cecropia Moth
  8. Imperial Moth
  9. European Puss Moth
  10. Rustic Sphinx
  11. Hickory Horned Devil
  12. The Drinker
  13. Eumorpha Sphinx Species
  14. Oleander Hawk Moth
  15. Elephant Hawk Moth
The big, heavy tomato hornworm is one of the most common big caterpillars in North America

The big, heavy tomato hornworm is one of the most common big caterpillars in North America

1. Tomato and Tobacco Hornworms: Genus Manduca

If you have found a big green caterpillar on your tomatoes, then it's almost certain that your plants are hosting larvae of Manduca quinquemaculata, or one of its very close relatives. Commonly known as "hornworms" due to the curving horn that graces their back end, these big caterpillars are voracious eaters and will do real damage to tomato plants. The huge green caterpillars feed on tomato leaves and young fruit, and if you find one on your vines then you can be pretty sure that there are others.

Despite their size, tomato hornworms are often hard to find among the leaves, because their color and markings are perfectly evolved to provide camouflage from predators (like you). Control of these insects basically means finding them and picking them off by hand and smashing them into your compost pile—the scavengers there will welcome them. An alternative method of control for these and all other insect pests is dusting with "diatomaceous earth," a naturally occurring substance that kills crawling insects but is organic and chemically inert.

A tomato hornworm moth. You're much more likely to see the big green caterpillars than the adult moth.

A tomato hornworm moth. You're much more likely to see the big green caterpillars than the adult moth.

The Basics

  • Does it sting? No. The horn on the tail is only for show.
  • What does it eat? Almost exclusively tomatoes, but sometimes other related plants.
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Yes. A few can kill an entire tomato vine.
  • Is it rare? No. This species is found abundantly in the northern United States and southern Canada.
  • What does it turn into? It becomes a big, strong moth, one of a large group known as "hawkmoths."
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, these are easy to raise. Keep a folded paper towel in the bottom of the container so it can pupate.

2. White-Lined Sphinx: Hyles lineata

This species is related to the tomato hornworm. It is part of a large family of moths known as the Sphingidae, or hawk moths. The white-lined sphinx is a big moth that flies like a hummingbird, hovering in front of flowers to drink nectar through its long, flexible "tongue." The adult is sometimes called the "striped morning hawkmoth," because it flies at dusk and dawn. If you're outside and it's getting dark and a big moth swoops by the hover in front of some flowers, it's almost certainly a hawkmoth of some kind. The caterpillars come in several forms: Some are green, as pictured, and some are brown are brightly patterned.

White-lined sphinx moth

White-lined sphinx moth

The Basics

  • Does it sting? No. As with all "hornworms," the horn on the tail is only for show.
  • What does it eat? Many shrubs and trees.
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Not typically.
  • Is it rare? No. This species is found abundantly in the US and Canada, as far south as Mexico.
  • What does it turn into? It becomes a big, beautiful moth, the "white-lined sphinx."
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, these are easy to raise. Keep a folded paper towel in the bottom of the container so it can pupate.
Emperor moth caterpillar

Emperor moth caterpillar

3. Emperor Moths: Genus Saturnia

These European species belong to a large group of moths commonly called "giant silk moths." The caterpillars are generally very large and often green in color, although they almost always have tubercles, spines, or club-like structures. The group ranges around the world, but those commonly called "emperor moths" are generally found only in Eurasia. These moths are not common, and since the adults fly at night and hide during the day, they are seldom seen. The caterpillars are sometimes encountered after they have left the food plant and are searching for a good place to spin a cocoon.

The gorgeous adult moth of Saturnia pavonia

The gorgeous adult moth of Saturnia pavonia

The Basics

  • Does it sting? No.
  • What does it eat? Many trees, especially oaks.
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Rarely common enough to cause an issue.
  • Is it rare? Yes. This moth is seldom encountered.
  • What does it turn into? It becomes the gorgeous small peacock moth.
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, these are possible to raise with the right care and foodplants.

Read More From Owlcation

Eastern tiger swallowtail caterpillar

Eastern tiger swallowtail caterpillar

4. Tiger Swallowtail: Pterourus glaucus

The tiger swallowtail, Pterourus glaucus, is a big, beautiful butterfly that is common in the Eastern United States. There are closely related species throughout North America. It is related to the black swallowtail listed earlier in this guide and has many of the same features and habits. The caterpillar feeds on wild cherry, ash, and a number of other trees. Like other swallowtail butterflies, the female butterfly lays eggs on plants in the late spring and early summer. The caterpillar takes a few weeks to grow and pupate.

Swallowtail butterfly caterpillars often resemble bird droppings when they are immature, and this species is no exception. Full-grown tiger swallowtail caterpillars have small false eyes near the front of the body. These are purely for protection and are not actually eyes (a related species, the spicebush swallowtail, has truly beautiful and large fake eyes). Like all swallowtail caterpillars, this species possesses "osmeteria"—a foul-smelling, forked organ near the head—that it can pop out to deter predators.

The beautiful adult tiger swallowtail

The beautiful adult tiger swallowtail

The Basics

  • Does it sting? No.
  • What does it eat? Ash, wild cherry, and other trees.
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No.
  • Is it rare? No. This species is found abundantly in the northern United States and southern Canada.
  • What does it turn into? It becomes a big beautiful butterfly with black and yellow stripes.
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, these are easy to raise.
Luna moth caterpillar

Luna moth caterpillar

5. Luna Moth: Actia luna

This beautiful species, scientific name Actias luna, belongs to a large group of moths commonly called "giant silk moths." Luna moths are related to the emperor moth listed above but are found in North America. The caterpillar is very large and pale green in color, with red dots that feature small spines. The luna moth caterpillar is quite plain compared to other giant silk moth caterpillars, but the adult moth is incomparably gorgeous. It is considered by many to be the most beautiful insect in North America. The delicate green color and long swooping tails of the luna, combined with its impressive size, make it an unforgettable sight. Adults do not eat during their lives, but the caterpillars are found on a variety of plants.

The other-worldly luna moth often comes to lights

The other-worldly luna moth often comes to lights

The Basics

  • Does it sting? No.
  • What does it eat? Many trees, including walnut, oaks, and wild cherry.
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No.
  • Is it rare? No, although they are not often encountered. Spotting a freshly eclosed luna moth is a spectacular event!
  • What does it turn into? The gorgeous luna moth.
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, these are fairly easy to raise.
Polyphemus moth caterpillar

Polyphemus moth caterpillar

6. Polyphemus Moth: Antheraea Polyphemus

The polyphemus moth is one of the more common giant silk moths in North America. The stout, heavy caterpillar is perfectly camouflaged among the leaves of oak, birch, and other trees where it feeds, and the cocoon is a tough, compact brown oval— perhaps these qualities are what helps this species survive amid the recent onslaught of parasitic wasps that have been introduced to control other species.

The rotund caterpillar of the polyphemus moth can eat 86,000 times its own weight in the two months it takes to grow from a tiny "baby" to the time it's ready to make a cocoon. The huge fake eyes on the hindwings give this species its name—it's a reference to the Greek myth of Polyphemus, the one-eyed ogre that captured Ulysses and his men.

Polyphemus moth

Polyphemus moth

The Basics

  • Does it sting? No.
  • What does it eat? Oaks and many other trees.
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Not usually.
  • Is it rare? No. This species is found abundantly in the northern United States and southern Canada.
  • What does it turn into? It becomes a big beautiful moth with striking false eyespots on the hindwings.
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, these are easy to raise.
Cecropia moth caterpillar

Cecropia moth caterpillar

7. Cecropia Moth: Hyalophora cecropia

This amazing caterpillar becomes the largest moth in North America, the cecropia giant silk moth. Females of this species can reach a wingspan of 7 inches or even more; when one of these huge insects comes to a lighted window at night, it looks like a large bat. Up close, however, these moths are nothing like a bat—they have delicate shades of red, gray, and cream, and small clear "windows" in each wing, and the body has thick "fur" in stripes of royal red and white. It's a truly beautiful animal, and unfortunately, it's becoming less common as people cut down the forests where it lives.

The caterpillar, with its otherworldly spiked clubs, tubercles, and spines, feeds on a wide variety of plants, including maple, birch, apple, and oak. It hatches from the eggs as a tiny, black larva and soon grows to a 6-inch-long behemoth, shedding its skin numerous times along the way. It spins a tough cocoon lengthwise on a stick; these are so durable that they often remain on the plant for years after the insect emerges.

A male cecropia moth shortly after emerging from its cocoon (left)

A male cecropia moth shortly after emerging from its cocoon (left)

The Basics

  • Does it sting? No, despite its fearsome appearance.
  • What does it eat? Cherry, apple, ash, oaks, privet, and many other trees.
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No.
  • Is it rare? No, although it is not usually very common. This species is found in the northern United States and southern Canada.
  • What does it turn into? It becomes a big beautiful moth.
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, these are easy to raise.

8. Imperial Moth: Eacles imperialis

This very large caterpillar is either green or brown, depending on the color form. It's most often seen crawling on the ground in late summer when it leaves food plants and goes in search of a good spot to burrow underground and form a pupa. This species is related to giant silk moths but is in a separate subfamily (Ceratocampinae) that does not spin cocoons. The adult moths can be absolutely huge and come in a variety of shades of yellow, brown, and burgundy. They look very much like fallen leaves and, despite their size, can be very hard to see due to this camouflage.

The amazing camouflage of the adult imperial moth

The amazing camouflage of the adult imperial moth

The Basics

  • Does it sting? No, although its spines are quite sharp.
  • What does it eat? Sycamore, walnut, poplar, tulip tree, and others.
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No.
  • Is it rare? No. This species is common in the northern United States and southern Canada.
  • What does it turn into? It becomes the huge, beautiful imperial moth.
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, these are easy to raise.
European puss moth caterpillar

European puss moth caterpillar

9. European Puss Moth: Cerura vinula

This is a remarkable caterpillar that can be found throughout Europe, with many similar species throughout the world. The puss moth caterpillar (Cerura vinula), is a large, green insect with some surprising abilities. If you find one, it will probably consider you to be a threat and will attempt to scare you away. On their tail ends these caterpillars have two spines. The caterpillar can stick long red "whips" or tentacles out of these spines. If you are a parasitic wasp or some other threat, this might drive you away. If that fails, however, the caterpillar can also spit formic acid. This is the same burning substance that ants use when they bite (which is actually a sting, not a bite). This is an unusual ability in the caterpillar world. So if you find one, definitely handle with care!

The beautiful European puss moth, Cerura vinula

The beautiful European puss moth, Cerura vinula

The Basics

  • Does it sting? No, but it can spit acid in very small quantities
  • What does it eat? Poplars and other trees
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Not typically
  • Is it rare? This species is fairly common throughout Northern Europe
  • What does it turn into? It becomes a beautiful black-and-white moth
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, these are easy to raise. Keep a folded paper towel in the bottom of the container so it can pupate.
Rustic sphinx caterpillar

Rustic sphinx caterpillar

10. Rustic Sphinx Moth: Manduca rustica

Closely related to the tomato hornworm (Manduca quinquemaculata), the rustic sphinx (Manduca rustica) is less common and generally found in the southern United States. The large, strong-flying moth is beautiful, with streamlined wings mottled black, cream, and rusty brown. The caterpillar is deep green with maroon and white diagonal stripes with a curved horn on the rear end (known as a "caudal horn"). The horn is harmless, but it can give the caterpillar, which is very large and heavy, a "don't touch me" look. These caterpillars may be found when they leave plants to go looking for a place to burrow underground and form a pupa.

Rustic sphinx moth

Rustic sphinx moth

The Basics

  • Does it sting? No, the horn on the tail end is only for show
  • What does it eat? A number of ornamental plants, including species of Bignonia, Fraxinus, and Heliotropium.
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Not typically
  • Is it rare? This species is fairly common throughout North America, but more so in the South
  • What does it turn into? It becomes a big, beautiful hawk moth
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, these are fairly easy to raise. Keep a folded paper towel in the bottom of the container so it can pupate.
Regal moth caterpillar, AKA "The Hickory Horned Devil"

Regal moth caterpillar, AKA "The Hickory Horned Devil"

11. Regal Moth: Citheronia Regalis

This is the largest caterpillar in North America, even bigger than the cecropia giant silk moth (above), and the moth it becomes, the royal walnut moth, is the largest moth by mass. You may be lucky enough to come across the caterpillar, but you will likely never see the moth, even though it's huge because like most moths it only comes out at night and hides during the day. The caterpillar earns its common name, the hickory horned devil, from its terrifying look, its size, weight, and huge demonic horns. When disturbed, it often rears up and clicks its jaws together menacingly. Despite all of this, it cannot bite or sting, and if you handle one it will simply crawl on you. This legendary caterpillar is a real find if you happen to spot a full-grown one crawling on the ground looking for a place to dig down and pupate.

The gorgeous regal moth, Citheronia regalis

The gorgeous regal moth, Citheronia regalis

The Basics

  • Does it sting? No, the horns and spines are only for show
  • What does it eat? A number of trees and plants, including walnut, oak, and sumac.
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Not typically
  • Is it rare? This species is fairly common throughout North America, but it is more often found in the South
  • What does it turn into? It becomes the stunning royal walnut moth, AKA the regal moth.
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, these are fairly easy to raise. Keep a folded paper towel in the bottom of the container so it can pupate.
Drinker caterpillar

Drinker caterpillar

12. Drinker Moth: Euthryx Potatoria

This cool species in often found wandering on the ground as it searches for a place to pupate. It's related to other "eggar moth" species, which have similarly large, furry caterpillars, but are somewhat less often seen. The drinker supposedly got its common name (a reflection of its scientific name, potatoria, or "drinker-like"), from an 18th-century entomologist, who observed the moth's habit of repeatedly plunging its head into water. However, there are also references to the caterpillar drinking beads of dew from the grasses on which it feeds; this is plausible since many caterpillars have been observed doing this.

This species, like all eggar moths, is among the largest of European Lepidoptera, although by far the largest are the sphinx moths and the giant silk moths.

Drinker moth

Drinker moth

The Basics

  • Does it sting? No, the fur is non-toxic
  • What does it eat? A wide range of plants including cock’s-foot, common reed, and wood small-reed.
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Not typically
  • Is it rare? This species is common and well-established across Northern Europe
  • What does it turn into? It becomes a big brown and yellow moth
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, these are possible to raise
Sphinx moths (or Eumorpha achemon), a species in the genus Eumorpha

Sphinx moths (or Eumorpha achemon), a species in the genus Eumorpha

13. Sphinx Moth Caterpillars in the Genus Eumorpha

This is a group of spectacular moths that occur primarily in North and South America. In North America, the most commonly encountered species are E. vitis, E. pandorus, and E. achemon, although several others may be encountered, generally as strays or in the desert southwest. The caterpillars are very large and stout, like most larvae in the Sphingidae family. Typically these caterpillars lose their caudal horn ("tail" horn) by the time they are fully grown. In its place, they often acquire a glassy spot or "eye." This feature is a good field mark for identifying Eumorpha caterpillars.

Another characteristic of Eumorpha caterpillars is the variety of color forms. The offspring from one female may not wind up being the same color at maturity -- some may be green, while others may be deep brown, pale orange, or even pinkish. Eumorpha larvae also typically have eyespots of some kind running down the sides of the body.

The adult moths of this group are truly gorgeous, although they are seldom seen unless you are looking specifically for them, or can raise a caterpillar to the adult moth.

The Basics

  • Does it sting? No
  • What does it eat? A wide range of plants, especially vines like grapes, creepers, and passiflora.
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Not typically
  • Is it rare? These caterpillars are never very common, but due their size and colors they are often noticed where they occur.
  • What does it turn into? Eumorpha sphinx moths are among the most beautiful moths in North America.
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, these are possible to raise
The beautiful oleander hawk-moth is endemic to Europe

The beautiful oleander hawk-moth is endemic to Europe

14. Oleander Hawk Moth: Daphnis Nerii

This species is another spectacular hawk moth, and one of the most well-known moths in Europe. It feeds on oleander (hence the common name), which is a widely-planted ornamental shrub in Europe. The insect is native to wide areas of Africa and Asia, but in the summer its population expands and it migrates to eastern and southern Europe.

The adults use their long, coiled "tongue" to extract nectar from fragrant flowers like jasmine. Like most hawk moths, they can hover like a hummingbird in front of flowers while they feed. They are especially active at dusk.

The amazingly colored caterpillars may gain some protection by feeding on the poisonous leaves of the oleander, which is toxic enough to occasionally cause fatalities in humans (even the smoke from burning oleander can cause cardiac arrest). The caterpillars, needless to say, are immune to the toxins.

Just before it pupates, the caterpillar of the oleander hawk-moth turns brown, due to the color of the next instar, the pupa, showing through the skin. The pupa itself is a pretty tan color, with darker lines and spots.

Oleander hawk moth: Daphnis nerii

Oleander hawk moth: Daphnis nerii

The Basics

  • Does it sting? No, although it may be toxic to pets who try to eat it
  • What does it eat? Primarily oleanders
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Not typically
  • Is it rare? These caterpillars can be found in Europe as their range expands in the summer
  • What does it turn into? The striking oleander hawk moth
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, these are possible to raise
Elephant hawk caterpillar

Elephant hawk caterpillar

15. Elephant Hawk Moth: Deilephila Elpenor

This hawk moth species gets its common name from the distinctive appearance of the caterpillar, which, if you use your imagination a little, does resemble an elephant. It closely resembles New World species in the genus Xylophanes, with its prominent eyespots and elongated front segments. The moth, too, resembles this group, but the coloring is unique. Elephant hawk moths are truly stunning, especially when freshly emerged, with olive and pink shading on strong, streamlined wings.

The "small elephant hawk moth" is a closely related species with a similar natural history. These two species can sometimes be confused. Like all hawk moths, these insects feed on flower nectar, which they obtain by hovering in front of the flower and probing it with a long, straw-like probosicis, or tongue.

Elephant hawk moth

Elephant hawk moth

The Basics

  • Does it sting? No, these insects are completely harmless
  • What does it eat? A wide range of plants, especially vines like grapes, creepers, and passiflora.
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Not typically
  • Is it rare? These caterpillars are never very common, but due their size and colors they are often noticed where they occur.
  • What does it turn into? The gorgeous elephant hawk moth
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, these are possible to raise

Resources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Comments

Lexi on October 25, 2019:

This is a great article with great high quality pictures. Good information. I'm raising polyphemus with my mom. Thanks for the article.

Ed Palumbo from Tualatin, OR on July 02, 2019:

I enjoyed this Hub and appreciate the information provided. I will look more closely at the caterpillars in my environment!

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