CATERPILLAR OF THE WEEK: Because I’m struggling to think about anything besides my trip home for the holiday, I’m offering you another Christmassy critter this week, the Northern Apple Sphinx (Sphinx poecila). _____________________________________________________

Commonly found on a variety of plants--including apple, sweetfern, blueberry, larch, gale, rose, willow, and more—the Northern apple sphinx is one of the most easily found sphinx caterpillars in New England. What agorgeous species to encounter in the wild, as my mother once discovered when she espied one while blueberry picking! (More on that experience later this week.) The Northern apple sphinx’s colors can be quite variable, ranging from the green morphs pictured here to a dark wine-colored morph and blotchy green and purple versions in between.

What’s in a name?

Interestingly, the Northern apple sphinx has been through quite an identity crisis over the years. In 1980, researcher J. C. E. Riotte wrote an article distinguishing Northern apple sphinx (Sphinx poecila) from plain-old apple sphinx (Sphinx gordius). In that article, he explained that Sphinx poecila had been recognized as its own species based on a moth specimen collected from an unknown location and illustrated in 1839. The specimen changed hands multiple times and was eventually lost, but the illustration lived on. Reprinted in 1845 and again in 1854, the illustration underwent artistic revisions and lost its integrity as a scientific drawing. Meanwhile, Sphinx poecila’s identity was forgotten and dissolved into Sphinx gordius.

In 1920, a scientist noticed differences among Sphinx gordius individuals and declared the different-seeming ones to be a new subspecies, Sphinx gordius borealis. In 1980, Riotte’s article explained that Sphinx gordius borealis had long ago been described as its own species, Sphinx poecila, and restored the caterpillar to its former poecila glory.

However, the Northern apple sphinx’s story doesn’t end there. Whether or not Sphinx poecila is actually a species distinct from Sphinx gordius is still being debated in the scientific community.

Who knew caterpillar taxonomy could be so dramatic???

-Liz Kautz, TCL Education Director

"Caterpillar of the Week" will highlight a different species we grow in The Caterpillar Lab each week… or, you know, at least SOME weeks. We hope you enjoy meeting the caterpillars of New England!

More information on the Northern Apple Sphinx on BugGuide here:

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The Caterpillar Lab fosters greater appreciation and care for the complexity and beauty of our local natural history through live caterpillar educational programs, research initiatives, and photography and film projects. We believe that an increased awareness of one’s local environment is the foundation on which healthy and responsible attitudes towards the broader natural systems of this world is built.

© 2015 CATERPILLAR LAB INC.  With original artwork by Heather Reid and Samuel Jaffe


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