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Caterpillars of India: A Photo Guide to Common Species

GreenMind publishes authoritative and detailed guides to the things you're curious about.

Read on to learn about 18 different caterpillars from India.

Read on to learn about 18 different caterpillars from India.

Caterpillars of India

This guide is an introduction to the caterpillars of one of the largest and most populous countries in the world. India’s is an enormous landmass with a stunning range of ecosystems that hold a breathtaking array of insects of all kinds. This brief-yet-authoritative guide is a great place to start if you are curious about some of the more common caterpillars you might encounter there.

This guide serves as a starting point for students and naturalists. The study of India’s insect life will continue to attract serious students from around the globe.

India at a Glance

India, properly known as the Republic of India, is one of the largest countries in South Asia. It is bordered by the Indian Ocean on the south and the Arabian Sea on the southwest, and it shares borders with Pakistan, China, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, and Bangladesh.

It is the 7th-largest country by land area and has a population of well over a billion. It has been described as a “megadiverse” country, one of only 17 globally that display high biological diversity and contain many indigenous or endemic species.

What Are Caterpillars?

Caterpillars are the immature or "larval" stage of butterflies and moths. This huge group of fascinating insects is called Lepidoptera. They are very commonly known around the world. There is hardly anyone who has not seen a butterfly or moth, whether drinking nectar at flowers or flying around lights at night. Butterflies usually fly in the day, and moths fly at night.

Caterpillars, the immature forms, are eating machines. 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 we usually never see them even though they're all around us. 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!

Caterpillar of the Indian Lily Moth, one of the species in this guide

Caterpillar of the Indian Lily Moth, one of the species in this guide

How to Use This Guide

For every caterpillar listed, this guide will tell you the following essential information:

  • Scientific Name: This is the insect's Latin name that scientists use
  • Taxonomy: Describes related species
  • Larval Food Plant: The kind of plant that the caterpillar eats
  • Range: Where you can expect to find this insect
  • Is the caterpillar toxic? This tells you when not to touch!

Identification Chart for Common Caterpillars of India

NameIdentificationHabits

Common Crow

Smooth, thin stripes, tentacles

Feeds on milkweeds

Malabar Tree Nymph

Bright black and white stripes; red spots

Feeds on milkweeds

Swordtails

Smooth, horizontal stripes, some spines

Adults gather at mudpuddles

Common Mime

Bright yellow-black "saddle" pattern; red spots

Found on laurel

Pioneer White

Smooth, green with brown sides

Feeds on capers

Common Nawab

Green with white bands; two horns on head

One of many similar, beautiful butterfly species

Apefly

Flat, oval, slug-like

Larva feeds on aphids; pupa has "ape" face

Indian Lily Moth

Speckled black, white, and orange

Can be a pest on lilies

Tropical Tiger Moth

Black with thin yellow stripes; fur/spines

Can cause serious allergic reactions

Transverse Moth

Smooth; green with black spots and white stripes

Feeds on hibiscus

Golden Emperor

Large; dark with bright yellow markings on sides

Spins silk cocoon; adult is strikingly beautiful

Tobacco Cutworm

Grey-brown with darker band behind head

Can be a serious pest of tobacco

Striped Ficus Worm

Bright yellow and black bands; red head

Feed in groups

Slug Caterpillars (Limacodidae)

Often brightly colored; spines

These caterpillars can sting

Pale Brown Hawk Moth

Large; eye spots; tail horn

Feeds on fuchsia and other plants

Oleander Hawk Moth

Large; bright green with striking blue "eye" markings

Feeds on toxic oleander

Oak Hawk Moth

Large; green with rough skin and tail horn

Found on oak

Ailanthus defoliator

Banded black and green

Feed in groups

1. Common Crow (Euploea core)

Euploea core, the common crow butterfly, occurs throughout India, Australia, and many places in between. It is a member of the Danaidae family, which means it shares ancestry with the Monarch butterfly of the Western Hemisphere and many other butterflies. There are other “crow” butterflies, along with the closely related “tigers.”

The common crow is a medium-sized, brown-black butterfly with bright, light-colored trailing edges to its wings. It has a slow, gliding flight that likely reflects the fact that it is unpalatable to birds and other predators thanks to the toxic sap of the plants the caterpillar eats. Many other butterflies may gain protection also by imitating the appearance of inedible insects like the common crow, a process called Batesian mimicry.

The Basics:

Scientific Name: Euploea core

Taxonomy: This species is in the family Danaidae, along with the monarch

Larval Foodplant: Toxic plants like dogbanes, milkweeds, and oleanders

Range: Very widespread across Africa, India, and Australia

Is the Caterpillar Toxic? Yes, but only if ingested; not to the touch

2. Malabar Tree Nymph (Idea malabarica)

This caterpillar can be found in South India, especially in the Western Ghats. Their flight is reported as weak and fluttery, with much time spent gliding; this gives the species the common name of "paper kite." Along with its relative the common crow, this butterfly is believed to be unpalatable to predators.

The Basics:

Scientific Name: Idea malabarica

Taxonomy: This species is in the family Danaidae

Larval Foodplant: Toxic plants like dogbanes, milkweeds, and oleanders

Range: South India

Is the Caterpillar Toxic? Yes, but only if ingested; not to the touch

Graphium is a genus of mostly tropical swallowtail butterflies. They are sometimes called swordtails due to the straight sharp swallowtails that many species have on the hind wings. There are over 100 species, several of which occur in India.

The butterflies are generally similar in appearance, but some have blue-green wings, and at least one is a mimic of an entirely different group. These butterflies are often seen on mud puddles.

The Basics:

Scientific Name: Many species in the genus Graphium and others

Taxonomy: This species is in the family Papilio, the swallowtails. This family is worldwide and includes some of our most beautiful insects

Larval Foodplant: Many plants, including Magnoliaceae (commonly), Lauraceae (commonly), and Rutaceae

Range: Very widespread across Africa, India, and Australia

Is the Caterpillar Toxic? No

4. Common Mime (Papilio clytia)

This butterfly is common, and, true to its name, it is a good mimic of other large white butterflies in India and beyond. Since it resembles other species protected by tasting bad to birds, this butterfly is seen as a mime or a mimic. This kind of protection is called "Batesian mimicry."

Like all swallowtails, the caterpillar has red scent organs it can pop out from behind its head. This may deter predators

The Basics:

Scientific Name: Papilio clytia

Taxonomy: This species is in the family Papilio, the swallowtails, a worldwide group

Larval Foodplant: Primarily species of the laurel family Lauraceae

Range: Very widespread across Africa, India, and Australia

Is the Caterpillar Toxic? No

5. The Pioneer White (Belenois aurota)

Belenois aurota, also known as the pioneer white or caper white, is a small to medium-sized butterfly of the family Pieridae. This large group includes the yellows and whites found in South Asia and Africa. The caterpillar feeds on capers and related plants.

This species is related to one of the most common butterflies globally, the "cabbage white," Artogeia rapae. The caterpillar is well-camouflaged among the leaves and stems of the food plant.

The Basics:

Scientific Name: Belenois aurota

Taxonomy: This species is in the family Pieridae, the whites

Larval Foodplant: Capers and related plants