'Silence of the Lambs' moth has starring role in an English garden

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The markings on the death's head hawkmoth have led to it being seen a bad omen, a harbinger of war, death and disease.

The markings on the death's head hawkmoth have led to it being seen a bad omen, a harbinger of war, death and disease.

The discovery of a caterpillar of the rare breed in South-east has, however, been greeted with glee by conservationists.

The larva of the Acherontia atropos, a species best known for its cameo appearance in the serial-killing blockbuster The Silence of the Lambs, was discovered in a spot no more sinister than a garden in Hampton. Brian Gilbert, 72, a former computer consultant, spotted the strange yellow caterpillar moving swiftly across his garden in south-west London last week and called in experts to identify it.

"It certainly looked threatening. It was about four inches [10cm] long. It went across the lawn, about 40 feet, in five minutes," he said.

The moth can develop a seven-inch wingspan, feeding on potato plants and honey. Generally an inhabitant of the warmer climes of southern Europe or north Africa, it can migrate hundreds of miles. The adult moth has been spotted in Britain before, particularly during last year's heatwave, but the larvae, which can be yellow or green and purple, has rarely been seen here.

Mark Parsons, head of moth conservation at Butterfly Conservation, said: "It is exciting to find a death's head hawkmoth caterpillar. It is a rather fabulous beast."

This summer had been a good one for moths, with two new species never previously seen before in Britain - the brightly coloured Eublemma purpurina and the less obvious Chiasmia aestimaria - recorded, he said.

Moths, Mr Parsons added, were much maligned and misunderstood, while butterflies got all of the attention. "There are 2,500 species of moth in this country. Many are very beautiful and fly by day. Quite a lot of people think they are butterflies."

In the Oscar-winning The Silence of the Lambs, the serial killer James Gumb leaves death's head hawkmoth pupa in the mouths of his victims. An image of the moth was on promotional posters.

While not dangerous, it has inspired fear throughout the ages. Throughout Europe its appearance in a candlelit room was considered an omen of death. In France, dust from its wings was thought to cause blindness while in Poland, where it is known as the "wandering death-bird", its strange cry was said to be the moaning of a grief-stricken child.