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That Is One Big Caterpillar

Jeffrey Hahn, Asst. Extension Entomologist

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Ficus sphinx caterpillar
Janet Moe

In early December, a Minneapolis garden center found a large caterpillar. Initially, they said it was found amongst some cut flowers the store received from California. They submitted the caterpillar to the Entomology Department. This caterpillar, measuring three inches long, was light green on the lower half of its body and a reddish orange striped pattern on top. After a quick check of the references, it was determined to be a ficus sphinx, (sometime called fig sphinx), Pachylia ficus.

Like the name suggests, the preferred food of this caterpillar is different species of Ficus plants. It has also been reported feeding on mangos. But don't expect to find this insect on the Ficus in your home or office. A ficus sphinx is a tropical and subtropical insect that is found in northern South America, including Uruguay, Brazil, Bolivia, Central America, the West Indies, and occasionally ranging into Florida, southern Arizona and Texas. Of course, it is can be found in other areas of the country when it hitches a ride on Ficus plants that are transported north but this is rare.

The coloration of the caterpillar is quite variable including greenish and brownish forms. Interestingly, when diagonal stripes are present they slope away from the tail which is unusual for sphinx moths. Some individuals undergo a dramatic color change to green with an orange back, like was found, just before it pupates. The characteristic horn or tail that most sphinx caterpillars possess is greatly reduced to just a nub in this species.

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Female ficus sphinx moth
Dan Janzen
The caterpillar pupates on the ground amongst leaf litter and other plant debris. An adult ficus sphinx has orangish brown forewings with a light colored patch near the tips while the hind wings are orangish brown with a black band across the wing along with a black border along the edge. This moth has a wingspan between 4 3/4 - 5 ½ inches.

When the gardening center was called back to notify them of the identification of the caterpillar, they said that after a little more investigation they actually discovered that the insect was not found in cut flowers but on a Ficus which of course made perfect sense.
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