Have you ever seen an elephant hawk moth? If you live in Europe or Asia you might have spotted one of these amazing insects. In the United Kingdom they are fairly common, but perhaps not often seen. It’s a real treat to spot an adult or a caterpillar, both are amazing sights.
Walking in the Cotswold Water Park recently, near the Gateway Centre on Lake 6, we spotted an elephant hawk moth caterpiller crossing the footpath (close to the grey circle in the map.
For a short time we just watched as it made its way across the path. But before it made it to the vegetation on the far side, some people appeared with a dog. The dog ran up enthusiastically to greet us and accidentally kicked the caterpiller before running off again. The caterpillar did something extraordinary – it mimicked a small snake.
Am I a caterpillar, or am I a snake?
For perhaps 20 seconds or so it writhed its body in a convincingly snakelike movement, and it pumped up several body segments behind the head, tucking its head down at the same time. With eye spot markings on its flanks, a scaly pattern on the entire body, and by raising up the front part of the body, it really did look the part. I wasn’t fast enough to get a photo, but I did get some video of the recovered caterpillar continuing on its way afterwards.
Searching the internet later, I found several good images of the caterpillar mimicking a small snake. Perhaps the best of these is show below.
The natural world is so amazing, and so full of surprises, but mimicry is quite a common feature in both plants and animals. The European white dead-nettle has leaves that cannot sting but match the appearance of the unrelated stinging nettle very closely. Some insects look like pieces of wood, or a leaf, or a patch of white lichen, or a bird dropping. Many slugs look very much like animal droppings of various kinds, and as they move so slowly only an alert predator is likely to notice them. Predators, too, use camouflage which is not truly mimicry, but helps them merge into dappled sunshine and shade. Fish are often dark on top and silvery underneath. Sometimes they are patterned and look like the gravel bed of a stream or river.