‘Silence of the Lambs’ moth found in the UK

The striking moth is part of the iconic poster for the Hollywood smash

Samuel Webb
Thursday 25 August 2022 12:30 BST
(REX/Strong Heart Productions)

A spectacular caterpillar of a rare moth species best known for appearing on the poster for The Silence of the Lambs has been found in the UK.

The giant and colourful caterpillar, measuring several inches in length, was discovered in a garden on west Dartmoor, Devon.

The death’s-head hawk-moth - a large migrant moth species gets its name because of its distinctive skull-shaped marking behind its head on the back of its thorax, and the species has historically been a source of superstition and associated with death.

Hawk-moths are a typically large and powerful-flying group of moths, and the death’s-head hawk-moth is a scarce visitor to Britain - with only a few found every year in late summer and autumn. It is more commonly found in southern Europe, Africa and the Middle East but is a renowned traveller and regularly migrates northwards to reach all parts of Europe, including the UK - most records being in southern England.

The large species, with a wingspan of up to 12cm, lays its eggs on plants including potato foliage and deadly nightshade, and the striped yellow caterpillars found occasionally in Britain pupate before hatching as adults which fly south before the onset of winter.

Anthony Hopkins as Dr Hannibal Lecter in ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ (Orion Pictures)

According to the conservation charity Butterfly Conservation, only a handful of death’s-head hawk-moths make it over from the Continent each autumn.

It adds on its website: "Despite this scarcity, its sinister reputation has haunted our literature, art and folklore for generations.

"It appears as a prophecy of doom in Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native; its presence as an ill-advised love token in William Holman Hunt’s 1851 painting The Hireling Shepherd hints of impending trouble between the young couple at the centre of the picture.

"But, most famously of all, the pupa of the moth is left as a grisly calling card by the psychotic serial killer in the 1991 horror blockbuster The Silence of the Lambs."

The darkly-coloured adult moths are unusual in that they emit a squeaking noise when alarmed.

They are nocturnal and can be attracted to light, and the adults may enter beehives in search of honey.

Journalist and nature writer Charlie Elder, who identified the caterpillar after it was found by a neighbour, said: "When he handed me a tub with it inside, I was amazed at the size of it. It was quite spectacular and beautifully patterned.

"I have seen a few kinds of hawk-moths and their caterpillars, but nothing on this scale. It was certainly a rare and fascinating find."

According to the Devon Moth Group, it is the only death’s-head hawk-moth caterpillar reported to the county recorder so far this year.

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