Ladies and gentlemen, the recipient of the award for the finest example of invertebrate mimicry is bestowed upon Hemeroplanes triptolemus for its exceptional imitation of a venomous snake!
Image: Andreas Kay
Indigenous to the rainforests of the Amazon, the snake mimic caterpillar transforms into a rather unremarkable moth belonging to the Sphingidae family. However, during its larval stage, it employs a remarkable survival strategy. This adaptation is certainly necessary, as without a robust defense mechanism, sphinx moth caterpillars become high-energy ‘nuggets’ served on a bed of leafy greens for the jungle’s predators.
To evade this fate, the caterpillar initiates its defensive maneuver by arching backward and contorting its body, revealing shades of yellow, white, and black on its underside. It then inhales air through tiny openings on its sides (known as spiracles) and channels it towards the front of its body. As these segments swell, the caterpillar undergoes a remarkable transformation, assuming the guise of a venomous snake complete with a diamond-shaped ‘face’ and prominent, dark eyes.
Should the ‘deadly’ (and rather costly) costume not suffice to deter a predator, such as a lizard or a bird, the caterpillar might even mimic a snake’s striking behavior to enhance its effectiveness.
While the concept of deflection—a tactic involving eye-like markings to divert a predator’s attention from the head—is not uncommon in the animal kingdom, the snake mimic caterpillar takes it a step further by featuring its false face on the same end as its genuine one.
“Deflection might not serve a caterpillar well, as any part of its body getting pierced or torn off by an attacker would likely be fatal,” explains eyespot expert Dr. Thomas Hossie. “This defense strategy is all about intimidating or startling an attacker, prompting them to flee rather than risk a lethal encounter with a snake.”
Images: Andreas Kay
Images: Reinaldo Aguilar
Images: Andreas Kay
Interestingly, we’re also familiar with a moth that adopts snake camouflage in its fully developed stage, and the energy cost of such a disguise is also quite substantial.
Yet, this creature appears to outshine all others in the animal kingdom when it comes to showcasing the most impressive snake costume ever.