Flora and fauna of the Athens County area, and occasionally habitats outside Ohio. Subject matter will consist of both interpretive material and taxonomic issues in plant and animal identification.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Distribution of the Sphinx Moths & Hawkmoths of Ohio: Sphingidae

This is the first of hopefully many comprehensive posts on the distribution and identification of various moth families in Ohio. I have several other groups mapped out, but these take a lot of time (I do them by hand). So it may be awhile before the next one goes up. I doubt I can afford mapping software.

As a nature blog, my objective is simple. I wish to show illustrations from as many species in each family that I can find photos of. Maps will indicate where in the state they have been recorded, and hopefully give the viewer an idea of how common or rare they may be in Ohio. I'll throw a few live shots of mine in from time to time, but I will use mostly pinned specimens. They show both front and hind wing characters, and many times both wings are needed for proper identification. Numbers follow the Hodges checklist for moths of North America.

All records are property of the Ohio Lepidopterists database, and used by permission. Unless otherwise indicated, all photos belong to Jim Vargo, and are also used with permission.

Twin-spotted Hawkmoth, Smerinthus jamaicensis 7821. The key feature used to separate this from the other eyed species is the black line that splits the blue eye spot in half.

One-eyed Sphinx, Smerinthus cerisyi 7822. This species is similar to the previous, but the forewings contain a larger spattering of white and gray marks. The blue hindwing spot is not divided, but contains a smaller black circle instead. This species is not as commonly seen as the Twin-spot.

Blind-eyed Sphinx, Paonias excaecata 7824. The latin is sometimes spelled with a us at the end. It's called the Blind-eye because the blue spot lacks a black eye or line. That's fine, except the next couple of species have similar eye spots. This species is a richer brown than the others. I often notice 2-3 short dark streaks across the upper forewing. In the right light, you may get a purple sheen in the middle, as seen here in the live shots. Another character is the wing margins are much deeper scalloped than the others.

Small-eyed Sphinx, Paonias myops 7825. Size wise, this is one of the smallest of the eyed sphingids, hence the common name. It too has a black bordered eyespot, but that really doesn't stand out. What is more noticeable is the large amount of yellow in the hindwing. There is some yellow in the forewing also, but the fine etched lines of pink-purple dominate the wing. This is a very common species in Ohio.

Huckleberry Sphinx, Paonias astylus 7826. I don't bother with looking at the eye spots on this species. Yes there are some nice pink-purple wing markings, but look at both pairs of wings and the body. Think ORANGE!  The margins of the wings lack any scalloping when compared to the others. While it feeds on several types of plants, the primary food source for caterpillars is Huckleberry (Gaylusaccia) and Blueberry (Vaccinium). There's plenty of both here in southern Ohio, but this species is not seen very often. Here are a couple live shots from Jim McCormac.

Walnut Sphinx, Laothoe juglandis 7827. As the name indicates, it feeds on Walnut and Hickory, as well as members of the Birch family. I have always noticed the abdomen on this species is distinctly ringed or even raised with tufts of hair. The abdomen itself appears very long and sticks out well past the wings, even at rest. That is a superficial ID character that may not hold up all the time. It's just something that I notice a lot.

The wings are highly variable, with patterns often different on every specimen. One thing that is fairy consistent is the dark brown patch at the center bottom of the forewings.

Big Poplar Sphinx, Pachysphinx modesta 7828. It's not called big for nothing. Never mind millimeter measurements, this thing is ginormous! (is that a word?) Typically coming in with a 4 inch wingspan, I've seen them over 5. With the extra weight of that huge abdomen, it's quite the clumsy flier. The forewing is essentially gray brown. Light on the inner half, dark on the outer. The mix of gray, black, and maroon on the hindwing makes it quite showy. It feeds on Aspen, Cottonwood, and other members of the Willow family.

Ello Sphinx, Erinnyis ello 7834. Considering most of its food plants are tropical in nature, I doubt we'll see any of the caterpillars up here. This is one of our southern strays up from Florida. The forewings are gray, and the hindwings orange. There are subtle differences in the wings with the next species, but all one has to do to recognize it is look for the Zebra striped abdomen. Some of the records go back a century or more, with the most recent in Ashtabula in 1986.

Obscure Sphinx, Erinnyis obscura 7837. Speaking of rare strays from Florida, this one is even more uncommon than Ello. As for the subtle differences I mentioned above, obscura has a short black line on the margin of the hindwing, and the black stripe in the forewing breaks apart mid way up. In ello, the black band is more complete on the hindwing, the the black stripe of the forewing reaches all the way to the top. Enough of that, just look at the body, it's solid colored, no zebra pattern.

There are two records for it in Athens County, and one from the Tiffin area dating back to 1891. Just this year Alex Webb captured a third county record from the Ashland area.

                                                            Jim McCormac photo
Pandora Sphinx, Eumorpha pandorus 7859. Pink and green, what a combination. This is another very large and colorful species. No detailed description is really needed. Upon first sight you'll recognize this. People who keep these in collections will notice the green completely fades away over time. It's a vine feeder, and with the food plants everywhere, (Virginia Creeper Parthenocissus quinquefolia, and Wild Grapes (Vitis), it's no wonder it is a very common moth.

Achemon Sphinx, Eumorpha achemon 7861. Related to the Pandora above, it has similar black markings in the wings. The base color though is brown, not green. One look at those bright pink hindwings, and you'll have no doubt what this is.

Sometimes what one thinks just isn't true. I have never seen this in Ohio, and didn't think it occurred here. My only experience with it is in the south. After examining the records, it seems to be more common then I would have imagined. It's also a Wild Grape feeder, so I shouldn't be surprised. Guess I just need to look a little harder.

Lesser Vine Sphinx, Eumorpha fasciatus 7865. Also known as the Banded Sphinx, this is another southern species. As a group, Sphinx moths are some of the most powerful and rapid fliers in the moth world. Perhaps this contributes to so many 'strays' found in the northern states. This species travels up the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, and has even been recorded in Maine and Canada. Pink and green bordering black in the hindwing add to its color. Pay attention to the two white lines that intersect in the forewing.

White-lined Sphinx, Hyles lineata 7894. Superficially similar to the above, but this is the real abundant one people see in Ohio. It lacks any green in the hindwing, has only one white band in the forewing, and the abdomen has black and white squares. This species is commonly seen hovering like a Hummingbird while nectaring at plants.

Galium Sphinx, Hyles gallii 7893. While most strays I have mentioned come up from the south, the range for this species is north of Ohio. This is smaller than the White-lined, and with a more stunted appearance. The thorax is solid colored. It's striped in the White-lined. The thick white wing band is bordered only by solid brown. In White-lined, it is crossed by numerous white veins.
The only record I had for this dated back to before Ohio was a state. I just examined the Ohio Lepidopterists collection and found a much more recent record from Athens County.

Lettered Sphinx, Deidamia inscripta 7871. Inscripted with letters? I don't see any, but that dark curved line in the middle of the forewing is helpful. It's usually bordered out to the edge by a large rusty patch. That pattern is variable, so I always look for the sickle-shaped white mark surrounded by black spots up by the wing tip. The hindwings are a dull orange. This is one of the smallest species in Ohio.


  1. Gorgeous moths. Any thoughts about how a short lived moth from Florida makes it up to Ohio? Swept up in some weather system and transported with southerly winds?

  2. I believe so Karen. The adults can nectar on other sources, but the caterpillars are never seen because the hosts plants don't range this far north.

  3. I have seem some of these moths by my house in trumbel county, northeastern ohio, but what really gets me is last summer i found an extremely large green caterpillar that I'm certain was a hawkmoth, but unfortunately was never able to identify. I wish i took a photo.

  4. Found one of these beauties in my backyard in San Diego just now! Didn't want to fly until it was safe. Apparently this guy was trying to avoid some bluejays here. Hope this helps some of your research or peace of mind knowing that they are finding homes in other parts of the states.

  5. I just had a White Lined Moth nectaring from my butterfly bush this afternoon. First time ever seeing one. My 5 year old grandson saw it with me and said, “I see his straw!” Captured on awesome video of it, also.