Mummified hornworms

Mummified sphinx caterpillar shell

When out walking Raven the other day, I came across some little cocoons on a small sapling. Ordinarily I would probably have missed them, and I’m not sure why it was that the first one caught my eye. But I saw it, and stopped, and took some photos. And then I looked at some of the other branches on the sapling. After a moment or two I spotted another. And then another. I think my finally tally was 13.

Those will be the subject of tomorrow’s post, most likely, but the reason I bring it up is because that instance of being rewarded upon paying slightly closer attention, of discovering this stuff that I had passed by multiple times before and may have again had I not looked a bit closer, prompted me to pause and examine some of the branches I was walking by yesterday when I took Raven out. I didn’t know what I was looking for. Cocoons, maybe, galls, something abnormal or that showed that something had been there.

Mummified sphinx caterpillar shell

What I discovered was way cooler than anything I had envisioned finding. I had to post the images to for a definitive ID. I got as far as thinking it was a caterpillar that had been parasitized, perhaps by a fungus, and the spike was the fungus growing out of it or something.

Turns out it’s the remains of a sphinx moth caterpillar, a young one that hadn’t grown very big yet. Many of them can get quite large, up to a couple inches or more. This was less than one inch long. However, the horn sprouting from its rear end is a characteristic of this group of caterpillars and not a fungal growth at all, an appendage that gives the group their “caterpillar name”, hornworms. But it had lost its head, and the caterpillar itself was long since dead.

Mummified sphinx caterpillar shell

The killer? A wasp in the genus Aleiodes, a group that bears the common name “mummy-wasps”. There are about 90 species in this group in North America. These wasps parasitize and eventually (but not right away) kill leaf-eating caterpillars, including many common and “pest” species such as Gypsy Moths, Tent Caterpillars, Fall Webworms, and others. The wasp larva develops inside the caterpillar’s body, eventually killing its host once it’s eaten enough, but it doesn’t consume the skin. Because the caterpillar would likely fall off the branch once it died, the larva actually affixes its host to the branch with a glue-like substance by chewing a hole in the caterpillar’s belly. When it pupates it leaves through a hole in the back of the dead caterpillar’s shell, but the caterpillar itself usually remains identifiable. This is unique among parasitoids, most of which consume the whole body, or the body otherwise becomes shriveled beyond recognition.

Mummified sphinx caterpillar shell pointed me to an identification guide put out by the US Forest Service on the common eastern Aleiodes species and their mummies. Based on this, I think my caterpillars were Waved Sphinx moths (a species I have actually encountered at my parents’ old place), and the guilty party therefore A. ceratomiae (a species I have not encountered, at least not consciously). This photo from Wikimedia Commons is of an Aleiodes (not A. ceratomiae, but similar) parasitizing a Gypsy Moth caterpillar.

Mummified sphinx caterpillar shell

In the case of the caterpillars previous, there was no exit hole. Chances are that the wasp larvae in these caterpillars died before it fully developed. I found two of those. I also found four of these brown empty cases, as in the photo above. Turns out, they’re the same thing, only the wasp larvae made it to maturation. The hole is the exit where the adult wasp left. The horn of the caterpillar at some point fell off during the drying process (as the head had done much earlier on both the above and this), but had been affixed to the right of the hole in this photo. You may note that this one is smooth, but the others are kind of spikey. The person at who ID’d these wasn’t sure whether that was just the natural mummification process, or if perhaps there was also a fungus involved.

So there you go. You never know what you might find if you peer closely.


Author: Seabrooke

Author of Peterson Field Guide to Moths. #WriteOnCon Mastermind. Writer of action/thriller SF/F YA. Story junkie. Nature nut. Tea addict. Mother. Finding happiness in the little things. Twitter: @SeabrookeN / @SeabrookeLeckie

11 thoughts on “Mummified hornworms”

  1. Wow, now that is really cool Seabrooke. So that “horn” is coming out of the caterpillar’s rear end, just like a tomato hornworm? Beautiful images! It is amazing what we miss in our everyday lives isn’t it? Thanks for reminding me to slow down and take notice.

  2. I’ve seen things with holes, and always assumed they were leftovers from one stage or another of someone’s metamorphosis. Parasites, though, that makes more sense. Will have to pay more attention in the future!

  3. Yes, I’ve seen these on many occasions and assumed they were parasitization mummies – however, I never took the time to follow through and make sure. Thanks for doing this for me ;-)

  4. Outstanding photography and a really interesting item. Thanks for sharing. How did you manage to keep the camera so still in freezing conditions? Do you carry around a tripod?

  5. Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    Lavenderbay – there are some holes that are legitimately made by the owners of the cocoon! See today’s post for an example. I guess you have to have an idea of what it should normally look like to know when it’s abnormal.

    Mike – No, no tripod, though I did consider going back with one. I find it too cumbersome to tote around when I’m hiking, which is when I normally stumble upon these things. Instead I just opened the aperture as wide as it would go, bumped the ISO way up, and tried to stay as still as I could for the 1/20 second exposure. I ran off a few dozen shots and just picked the ones that came out the sharpest.

  6. I wonder if they might be some late hatching caterpillars that just froze before they could make a cocoon?

    This past fall, I was raising a bunch of cecropia moth caterpillars and I had some that hatched out later than most. I found a number of these late (in every sense of the word!) caterpillars frozen to branches after an early frost. They didn’t mature in time to spin a cocoon.

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