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7 Caterpillars With Large Eyespots (With Photos)

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This guide will look at seven caterpillars with eyespots and what potential threats they may pose to your garden.

This guide will look at seven caterpillars with eyespots and what potential threats they may pose to your garden.

7 Caterpillars With Big Fake "Eyes"

This is a quick and easy guide to common caterpillars that have large eyespots as part of their design. These are not the caterpillar's actual eyes, as we shall see. They are instead adaptations that have evolved to give the caterpillar the appearance of being more threatening than it really is.

There are not many caterpillars with "eyes" that look real, but you are likely to find one simply because they are so noticeable. It's also important to know that none of the "eyed" caterpillars in our area are pests, or capable of stinging. If you find one, consider yourself lucky to have crossed paths with one of Nature's most beautiful masters of disguise.

For each eyespotted caterpillar species, this guide begins with The Basics:

  • What is the scientific name?
  • Where does this species occur?
  • What is the food plant?
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees?
  • How do you raise it to the adult butterfly or moth?

We also include photos, descriptions, and natural history details that help you understand your big-eyed caterpillar a little bit better, so you can decide whether to go all-in on control, or to live and let live by recognizing the critter's right to exist as part of Nature's plan.

The spicebush swallowtail caterpillar, showing its eyespots.

The spicebush swallowtail caterpillar, showing its eyespots.

Spicebush Swallowtail Caterpillar

The Basics:

  • What is the scientific name? Papilio troilus
  • Where does this species occur? North America
  • What is the food plant? Spicebush leaves
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Not usually
  • How do you raise it to the adult butterfly or moth? Can be raised with leaves from the food plant and a safe enclosure

The spicebush swallowtail caterpillar sports some of the biggest and most convincing fake eyes of any butterfly species in the world. Any bird, mouse or lizard looking for a quick meal will undoubtedly think twice before tangling with this creature—it's totally harmless, but it looks enough like a snake to scare off a predator.

Swallowtail butterfly caterpillars also an added defensive trick called an "osmeterium." This is a red, forked organ that they can pop out from behind their head and wave at anything harassing them. Combined with the fake eyespots, this display says "snake!" in no uncertain terms.

Osmeterium on a Related Swallowtail Caterpillar Species

Osmeterium on a Related Swallowtail Caterpillar Species

caterpillars-with-eyes

Tiger Swallowtail

The Basics:

  • What is the scientific name? Pterourus glaucus
  • Where does this species occur? North America
  • What is the food plant? Wild cherry, willow, and others
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No
  • How do you raise it to the adult butterfly or moth? Can be raised with leaves from the food plant and a safe enclosure
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Like the spicebush swallowtail, the tiger swallowtail has eyespots and an osmeterium. It's true that the tiger has smaller eyespots than the spicebush, but they are still realistic and disguise the true identity of the harmless caterpillar.

You may find one of these caterpillars resting on the trunk of a wild cherry tree, the food plant, or crawling on the ground as it searches for a suitable place to make its chrysalis.

Caterpillar of the Tersa Sphinx Moth

Caterpillar of the Tersa Sphinx Moth

Tersa Sphinx

The Basics:

  • What is the scientific name? Xylophanes tersa
  • Where does this species occur? Southern US and Central America
  • What is the food plant? Violet, milkweed, honeysuckle and others
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No
  • How do you raise it to the adult butterfly or moth? Can be difficult, but like others can be raised with leaves from the food plant and a safe enclosure

The tersa sphinx is one of several related moth species whose caterpillar resembles a snake. These are very large caterpillars, up to five inches in length, and the fake eyes on the front end make the whole package very threatening, and not just to would-be predators—people have been scared away but what they assume to be a snake, but is in fact a totally harmless, if huge, moth caterpillar.

caterpillars-with-eyes

Where Are a Caterpillar's Real Eyes?

Caterpillars have poor eyesight, and are generally able to discern light, dark, and movement if it's not too far away. Since caterpillars are only one part of the life-cycle of the butterfly or moth, they are designed accordingly; caterpillars only need to see the leaf in front of them so they can eat it; the adult needs to be able to see where it's going as it flies around, so their eyes are much bigger and more efficient.

Caterpillar eyes may be tiny and not too useful, but at least they have a lot of them—12, to be exact. According to Medowia,

"The majority of caterpillars have twelve eyes, six on either side of their head. A few species have between ten and fourteen eyes instead. These species are largely more primitive forms, which also have other features that mark them out from other moths and butterflies."

The Elephant Hawk Caterpillar

The Elephant Hawk Caterpillar

Elephant Hawk Moth

The Basics:

  • What is the scientific name? Deilephila elpenor
  • Where does this species occur? Across Europe
  • What is the food plant? Willow-herb and bedstraws
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No
  • How do you raise it to the adult butterfly or moth? Yes, this species is fairly easy to raise

This caterpillar is closely related to the tersa sphinx (above), but is found in Europe, while the tersa sphinx is a New World species found in the southern US and Central America. The Elephant hawk apparently gets its name from both the fake eyes and the way in which it extends the forward-most segments of its body when it moves, which gives it the resemblance of an elephant and its trunk.

The adult moth of the elephant hawk is gorgeous, and anyone coming across one is lucky have the experience.

Silver-Spotted Skipper

Silver-Spotted Skipper

Silver-Spotted Skipper

The Basics:

  • What is the scientific name? Epargyreus clarus
  • Where does this species occur? North America
  • What is the food plant? Many species in the pea family
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No
  • How do you raise it to the adult butterfly or moth? Difficult, due to shelter-building habits

Skippers are a group of Lepidoptera that share characteirstics of both butterflies and moths—they have stout bodies and wings, and many species spin webs or cocoons when they pupate, like moths, but they fly during the day, like butterflies. Several skipper larvae have fake eyespots, but these are located on the large, rounded head of the caterpillar, not on the body. When a big skipper caterpillar pokes its head out of its leaf shelter and shows two big round "eyes," it's sure to startle most predators looking for a meal.

Pergesa Hawk Moth Caterpillar

Pergesa Hawk Moth Caterpillar

Pergesa Hawkmoth

The Basics:

  • What is the scientific name? Pergesa acteus
  • Where does this species occur? India and other regions
  • What is the food plant? Diffenbachia, begonia, vitis, and many other plants
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No
  • How do you raise it to the adult butterfly or moth? Yes

This is a tropical sphinx species that is representative of the beauty and variety of Lepidoptera in truly wild places. The fake eyespots on the caterpillar border on the outrageous, and it's hard to believe that they're just a pattern on the insect's skin, rather than functioning eyes.

The adult Pergesa hawkmoth is also intensely beautiful, with green-shaded wings that disguise it among the leaves of the rain forest.

The gorgeous pergesa hawk moth

The gorgeous pergesa hawk moth

The Oleander Hawk Moth

The Oleander Hawk Moth

Oleander Hawk Moth

The Basics:

  • What is the scientific name? Daphins nerii
  • Where does this species occur? Southern Europe into Africa
  • What is the food plant? Oleander
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No
  • How do you raise it to the adult butterfly or moth? Not recommended due to toxicity of food plant

Like the pergesa sphinx (above), the oleander hawk moth is a big caterpillar with striking eyespots that are capable of giving predators second thoughts. This species is found throughout southern Europe and into Africa, and the oleander leaves it feeds on may make the caterpillar poisonous, lending it another layer of protection.

The adult moth is amazingly patterned in greens and purples, making a kind of camouflage among the leaves where it rests. And it, too, has fake eyespots that might scare away predators!

Oleander Hawk Moth

Oleander Hawk Moth

Sources

The following resources were used for this guide:

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.

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