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Big Caterpillars: An Identification Guide to 15 Large Caterpillar Species of North America and Europe

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The amazing hickory horned devil

The amazing hickory horned devil

An Identification Guide to Big Caterpillars

This easy-to-use, authoritative identification guide to the larger caterpillars of North America and Europe will help you figure out which kind of caterpillar you have found. It includes accounts of species from several of my other caterpillar identification guides here on Owlcation, as well as several new species not mentioned in those articles. Most of these species are North American, but it includes European species where appropriate.

The polyphemus moth has a huge green caterpillar

The polyphemus moth has a huge green caterpillar

Caterpillar Species Included in this Guide

Tomato Hornworm

White-Lined Sphinx

Emperor Moths

Tiger Swallowtail

Luna Moth

Polyphemus Moth

Cecropia Moth

Imperial Moth

European Puss Moth

Rustic Sphinx

Hickory Horned Devil

The Drinker

Eumorpha Sphinx Species

Oleander Hawk Moth

Elephant Hawk Moth

Tomato and Tobacco Hornworm Caterpillars

The big, heavy tomato hornworm is one of the most common big caterpillars in North America

The big, heavy tomato hornworm is one of the most common big caterpillars in North America

Tomato and Tobacco Hornworms: Genus Manduca

If you have found a big green caterpillar on your tomatoes, then it's almost certain that your plants are hosting larvae of Manduca quinquemaculata, or one of its very close relatives. Commonly known as "hornworms" due to the curving horn that graces their back end, these big caterpillars are voracious eaters and will do real damage to tomato plants. The huge green caterpillars feed on tomato leaves and young fruit, and if you find one on your vines then you can be pretty sure that there are others.

Despite their size, tomato hornworms are often hard to find among the leaves, because their color and markings are perfectly evolved to provide camouflage from predators (like you). Control of these insects basically means finding them and picking them off by hand and smashing them into your compost pile -- the scavengers there will welcome them. An alternative method of control for these and all other insect pests is dusting with "diatomaceous earth," a naturally occurring substance that kills crawling insects but is organic and chemically inert.

The Basics:

Does it sting? No. The horn on the tail is only for show.

What does it eat? Almost exclusively tomatoes, but sometimes other related plants.

Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Yes. A few can kill an entire tomato vine.

Is it rare? No. This species is found abundantly in the northern United States and southern Canada.

What does it turn into? It becomes a big, strong moth, one of a large group known as "hawkmoths."

Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, these are easy to raise. Keep a folded paper towel in the bottom of the container so it can pupate.

Tomato Hornworm Moth

You're much more likely to see the big green caterpillars than the adult moth

You're much more likely to see the big green caterpillars than the adult moth

White-Lined Sphinx Caterpillar

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Another Form of the White-Lined Sphinx Caterpillar

The "eyespot" form of Hyles lineata

The "eyespot" form of Hyles lineata

White-Lined Sphinx: Hyles lineata

This species is related to the tomato hornworm. It is part of a large family of moths known as the Sphingidae, or hawk moths. The white-lined sphinx is a big moth that flies like a hummingbird, hovering in front of flowers to drink nectar through its long, flexible "tongue." The adult is sometimes called the "striped morning hawkmoth," because its flies at dusk and dawn. If you're outside and it's getting dark and a big moth swoops by the hover in front of some flowers, it's almost certainly a hawkmoth of some kind. The caterpillars come in several forms: Some are green, as pictured, and some are brown are brightly patterned.

The Basics:

Does it sting? No. As with all "hornworms," the horn on the tail is only for show.

What does it eat? Many shrubs and trees.

Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Not typically.

Is it rare? No. This species is found abundantly in the US and Canada, as far south as Mexico.

What does it turn into? It becomes a big, beautiful moth, the "white-lined sphinx."

Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, these are easy to raise. Keep a folded paper towel in the bottom of the container so it can pupate.

White-Lined Sphinx Moth

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Emperor Moth Caterpillar

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Emperor Moths: Genus Saturnia

These European species belongs to a large group of moths commonly called "giant silk moths." The caterpillars are generally very large and often green in color, although they almost always have tubercles, spines, or club-like structures. The group ranges around the world, but those commonly called "emperor moths" are generally found only in Eurasia. These moths are not common, and since the adults fly at night and hide during the day, they are seldom seen. The caterpillars are sometimes encountered after they have left the food plant and are searching for a good place to spin a cocoon.

The Basics:

Does it sting? No.

What does it eat? Many trees, especially oaks.

Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Rarely common enough to cause an issue.

Is it rare? Yes. This moth is seldom encountered.

What does it turn into? It becomes the gorgeous small peacock moth.

Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, these are possible to raise with the right care and foodplants.

Saturnia Pavonia Moth

The gorgeous adult moth of Saturnia pavonia

The gorgeous adult moth of Saturnia pavonia

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Caterpillar

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Tiger Swallowtail: Pterourus glaucus

The tiger swallowtail, Pterourus glaucus, is a big, beautiful butterfly that is common in the Eastern United States. There are closely related species throughout North America. It is related to the black swallowtail listed earlier in this guide and has many of the same features and habits. The caterpillar feeds on wild cherry, ash, and a number of other trees. Like other swallowtail butterflies, the female butterfly lays eggs on plants in the late spring and early summer. The caterpillar takes a few weeks to grow and pupate. Swallowtail butterfly caterpillars often resemble bird droppings when they are immature, and this species is no exception. Full-grown tiger swallowtail caterpillars have small false eyes near the front of the body. These are purely for protection and are not actually eyes (a related species, the spicebush swallowtail, has truly beautiful and large fake eyes). Like all swallowtail caterpillars, this species possesses "osmeteria"—a foul-smelling, forked organ near the head—that it can pop out to deter predators.

The Basics:

Does it sting? No.

What does it eat? Ash, wild cherry, and other trees.

Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No.

Is it rare? No. This species is found abundantly in the northern United States and southern Canada.

What does it turn into? It becomes a big beautiful butterfly with black and yellow stripes.

Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, these are easy to raise.

Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly

The beautiful adult tiger swallowtail

The beautiful adult tiger swallowtail

Luna Moth Caterpillar

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Luna Moth: Actia luna

This beautiful species, scientific name Actias luna, belongs to a large group of moths commonly called "giant silk moths." Luna moths are related to the emperor moth listed above but are found in North America. The caterpillar is very large and pale green in color, with red dots that feature small spines. The luna moth caterpillar is quite plain compared to other giant silk moth caterpillars, but the adult moth is incomparably gorgeous. It is considered by many to be the most beautiful insect in North America. The delicate green color and long swooping tails of the luna, combined with its impressive size, make it an unforgettable sight. Adults do not eat during their lives, but the caterpillars are found on a variety of plants.

The Basics:

Does it sting? No.

What does it eat? Many trees, including walnut, oaks, and wild cherry.

Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No.

Is it rare? No, although they are not often encountered. Spotting a freshly eclosed luna moth is a spectacular event!

What does it turn into? The gorgeous luna moth.

Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, these are fairly easy to raise.

Luna Moth

The other-worldly luna moth often comes to lights

The other-worldly luna moth often comes to lights

What Is a Caterpillar?

Caterpillars are the larval stage of Lepidoptera, commonly known as butterflies and moths. They spend their days eating and storing energy for the adult butterfly or moth that they will become. Caterpillars are well-adapted to their natural surroundings. Most of them are camouflaged, so even though they're all around us, we never see most of them. They are so perfectly disguised, or have such secretive habits, that we walk right by them without ever knowing they're there. But they are!

Most caterpillars live their lives quietly eating leaves (and, of course, pooping). They rarely do any damage to the plant they live on. Sometimes, however, caterpillars can seriously harm trees and other plants. The gypsy moth caterpillar is a serious pest of oak forests in the northern US. Other caterpillars attack garden plants. If you grow tomatoes, chances are good you've come across the Tomato Hornworm, a big green monster that can destroy a tomato plant in less than a week.

Polyphemus Moth Caterpillar

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Polyphemus Moth: Antheraea Polyphemus

The polyphemus moth is one of the more common giant silk moths in North America. The stout, heavy caterpillar is perfectly camouflaged among the leaves of oak, birch, and other trees where it feeds, and the cocoon is a tough, compact brown oval -- perhaps these qualities are what helps this species survive amid the recent onslaught of parasitic wasps that have been introduced to control other species.

The rotund caterpillar of the polyphemus moth can eat 86,000 times it's own weight in the two months it takes to grow from a tiny "baby" to the time it's ready to make a cocoon. The huge fake eyes on the hindwings give this species its name -- it's a reference to the Greek myth of Polyphemus, the one-eyed ogre that captured Ulysses and his men.

The Basics:

Does it sting? No.

What does it eat? Oaks and many other trees.

Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Not usually.

Is it rare? No. This species is found abundantly in the northern United States and southern Canada.

What does it turn into? It becomes a big beautiful moth with striking false eyespots on the hindwings.

Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, these are easy to raise.

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Cecropia Moth Caterpillar

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Cecropia Moth: Hyalophora cecropia

This amazing caterpillar becomes the largest moth in North America, the cecropia giant silk moth. Females of this species can reach a wingspan of 7 inches or even more; when one of these huge insects comes to a lighted window at night, it looks like a large bat. Up close, however, these moths are nothing like a bat -- they have delicate shades of red, gray, and cream, and small clear "windows" in each wing, and the body has thick "fur" in stripes of royal red and white. It's truly beautiful animal, and unfortunately it's becoming less common as people cut down the forests where it lives.

The caterpillar, with its otherworldly spiked clubs, tubercles, and spines, feeds on a wide variety of plants,including maple, birch, apple, and oak. It hatches from the eggs as a tiny, black larva and soon grows to a 6-inch-long behemoth, shedding its skin numerous times along the way. It spins a tough cocoon lengthwise on a stick; these are so durable that they often remain on the plant for years after the insect emerges.

The Basics:

Does it sting? No, despite its fearsome appearance.

What does it eat? Cherry, apple, ash, oaks, privet, and many other trees.

Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No.

Is it rare? No, although it is not usually very common. This species is found in the northern United States and southern Canada.

What does it turn into? It becomes a big beautiful moth.

Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, these are easy to raise.

Cecropia Moth

A male cecropia moth shortly after emerging from its cocoon (left)

A male cecropia moth shortly after emerging from its cocoon (left)

Imperial Moth Caterpillar, Brown Form

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Imperial Moth Caterpillar, Green Form

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Imperial Moth: Eacles imperialis

This very large caterpillar is either green or brown, depending on the color form. It's most often seen crawling on the ground in late summer, when it leaves food plants and goes in search of a good spot to burrow underground and form a pupa. This species is related to giant silk moths but is in a separate subfamily (Ceratocampinae) that does not spin cocoons. The adult moths can be absolutely huge and come in a variety of shades of yellow, brown, and burgundy. They look very much like fallen leaves and, despite their size, can be very hard to see due to this camouflage.

The Basics:

Does it sting? No, although its spines are quite sharp.

What does it eat? Sycamore, walnut, poplar, tulip tree, and others.

Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No.

Is it rare? No. This species is common in the northern United States and southern Canada.

What does it turn into? It becomes the huge, beautiful imperial moth.

Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, these are easy to raise.

Imperial Moth

The amazing camouflage of the adult imperial moth

The amazing camouflage of the adult imperial moth

European Puss Moth Caterpillar

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European Puss Moth: Cerura vinula

This is a remarkable caterpillar that can be found throughout Europe, with many similar species throughout the world. The puss moth caterpillar (Cerura vinula), is a large, green insect with some surprising abilities. If you find one, it will probably consider you to be a threat and will attempt to scare you away. On their tail ends these caterpillars have two spines. The caterpillar can stick long red "whips" or tentacles out of these spines. If you are a parasitic wasp or some other threat, this might drive you away. If that fails, however, the caterpillar can also spit formic acid. This is the same burning substance that ants use when they bite (which is actually a sting, not a bite). This is an unusual ability in the caterpillar world. So if you find one, definitely handle with care!

The Basics:

Does it sting? No, but it can spit acid in very small quantities

What does it eat? Poplars and other trees

Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Not typically

Is it rare? This species is fairly common throughout Northern Europe

What does it turn into? It becomes a beautiful black-and-white moth

Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, these are easy to raise. Keep a folded paper towel in the bottom of the container so it can pupate.


The beautiful European puss moth, Cerura vinula

The beautiful European puss moth, Cerura vinula

Rustic Sphinx Caterpillar

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Rustic Sphinx Moth: Manduca rustica

Scientific name: Manduca rustica

Closely related to the tomato hornworm (Manduca quinquemaculata), the rustic sphinx (Manduca rustica) is less common and generally found in the southern United States. The large, strong-flying moth is beautiful, with streamlined wings mottled black, cream, and rusty brown. The caterpillar is deep green with maroon and white diagonal stripes with a curved horn on the rear end (known as a "caudal horn"). The horn is harmless, but it can give the caterpillar, which is very large and heavy, a "don't touch me" look. These caterpillars may be found when they leave plants to go looking for a place to burrow underground and form a pupa.

The Basics:

Does it sting? No, the horn on the tail end is only for show

What does it eat? A number of ornamental plants, including species of Bignonia, Fraxinus, and Heliotropium.

Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Not typically

Is it rare? This species is fairly common throughout North America, but moreso in the South

What does it turn into? It becomes a big, beautiful hawk moth

Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, these are fairly easy to raise. Keep a folded paper towel in the bottom of the container so it can pupate.

Rustic Sphinx Moth

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Regal Moth Caterpillar, AKA The Hickory Horned Devil

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Regal Moth: Citheronia Regalis

This is the largest caterpillar in North America, even bigger than the cecropia giant silk moth (above), and the moth it becomes, the royal walnut moth, is the largest moth by mass. You may be lucky enough to come across the caterpillar, but you will likely never see the moth, even though it's huge, because like most moths it only comes out at night and hides during the day. The caterpillar earns its common name, the hickory horned devil, from its terrifying look, its size, weight, and huge demonic horns. When disturbed, it often rears up and clicks it jaws together menacingly. Despite all of this, it cannot bite or sting, and if you handle one it will simply crawl on you. This legendary caterpillar is a real find if you happen to spot a full-grown one crawling on the ground looking for a place to dig down and pupate.

The Basics:

Does it sting? No, the horns and spines are only for show

What does it eat? A number of trees and plants, including walnut, oak, and sumac.

Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Not typically

Is it rare? This species is fairly common throughout North America, but it is more often found in the South

What does it turn into? It becomes the stunning royal walnut moth, AKA the regal moth.

Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, these are fairly easy to raise. Keep a folded paper towel in the bottom of the container so it can pupate.

The Regal Moth

The gorgeous regal moth, Citheronia regalis

The gorgeous regal moth, Citheronia regalis

The Drinker Caterpillar

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Drinker Moth: Euthryx Potatoria

This cool species in often found wandering on the ground as it searches for a place to pupate. It's related to other "eggar moth" species, which have similarly large, furry caterpillars, but are somewhat less-often seen. The drinker supposedly got its common name (a reflection of its scientific name, potatoria, or "drinker-like"), from an 18th-century entomologist, who observed the moth's habit of repeatedly plunging its head into water. However there are also references to the caterpillar drinking beads of dew from the grasses on which it feeds; this is plausible, since many caterpillars have been observed doing this.

This species, like all eggar moths, is among the largest of European Lepidoptera, although by far the largest are the sphinx moths and the giant silk moths.

The Basics:

Does it sting? No, the fur is non-toxic

What does it eat? A wide range of plants including cock’s-foot, common reed, and wood small-reed.

Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Not typically

Is it rare? This species is common and well-established across Northern Europe

What does it turn into? It becomes a big brown and yellow moth

Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, these are possible to raise

The Drinker Moth

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Sphinx Moths in the Genus Eumorpha

Eumorpha achemon, a species in the genus Eumorpha

Eumorpha achemon, a species in the genus Eumorpha

Sphinx Moth Caterpillars in the Genus Eumorpha

This is a group of spectacular moths that occur primarily in North and South America. In North America, the most commonly encountered species are E. vitis, E. pandorus, and E. achemon, although several others may be encountered, generally as strays or in the desert southwest. The caterpillars are very large and stout, like most larvae in the Sphingidae family. Typically these caterpillars lose their caudal horn ("tail" horn) by the time they are full grown. In its place they often acquire a glassy spot or "eye." This feature is a good field mark for identifying Eumorpha caterpillars.

Another characteristic of Eumorpha caterpillars is the variety of color forms. The offspring from one female may not wind up being the same color at maturity -- some may be green, while others may be deep brown, pale orange, or even pinkish. Eumorpha larvae also typically have eyespots of some kind running down the sides of the body.

The adult moths of this group are truly gorgeous, although they are seldom seen unless you are looking specifically for them, or can raise a caterpillar to the adult moth.

The Basics:

Does it sting? No

What does it eat? A wide range of plants, especially vines like grape, creepers, and passiflora.

Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Not typically

Is it rare? These caterpillars are never very common, but due their size and colors they are often noticed where they occur.

What does it turn into? Eumorpha sphinx moths are among the most beautiful moths in North America.

Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, these are possible to raise

Eumorpha Pandorus

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Eumorpha Typhon

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Oleander Hawk-Moth Caterpillar

The beautiful oleander hawk-moth is endemic to Europe

The beautiful oleander hawk-moth is endemic to Europe

Oleander Hawk Moth: Daphnis Nerii

This species is another spectacular hawk moth, and one of the most well-known moths in Europe. It feeds on oleander (hence the common name), which is a widely-planted ornamental shrub in Europe. The insect is native to wide areas of Africa and Asia, but in the summer its population expands and it migrates to eastern and southern Europe.

The adults use their long, coiled "tongue" to extract nectar from fragrant flowers like jasmine. Like most hak moths, they can hover like a hummingbird in front of flowers while they feed. They are especially active at dusk.

The amazingly colored caterpillars may gain some protection by feeding on the poisonous leaves of the oleander, which is toxic enough to occasionally cause fatalities in humans (even the smoke from burning oleander can cause cardiac arrest). The caterpillars, needless to say, are immune to the toxins.

Just before it pupates, the caterpillar of the oleander hawk-moth turns brown, due to the color of the next instar, the pupa, showing through the skin. The pupa itself is a pretty tan color, with darker lines and spots.

The Basics:

Does it sting? No, although it may be toxic to pets who try to eat it

What does it eat? Primarily oleanders

Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Not typically

Is it rare? These caterpillars can be found in Europe as its range expands in the summer

What does it turn into? The striking oleander hawk moth

Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, these are possible to raise


Oleander Hawk Moth: Daphnis Nerii

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Elephant Hawk Caterpillar

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Elephant Hawk Moth: Deilephila Elpenor

This hawk moth species gets its common name from the distinctive appearance of the caterpillar, which, if you use your imagination a little, does resemble an elephant. It closely resembles New World species in the genus Xylophanes, with its prominent eyespots and elongated front segments. The moth, too, resembles this group, but the coloring is unique. Elephant hawk moths are truly stunning, especially when freshly emerged, with olive and pink shading on strong, streamlined wings.

The "small elephant hawk moth" is a closely related species with a similar natural history. These two species can sometimes be confused. Like all hawk moths, these insects feed on flower nectar, which they obtain by hovering in front of the flower and probing it with a long, straw-like probosicis, or tongue.

The Basics:

Does it sting? No, these insects are completely harmless

What does it eat? A wide range of plants, especially vines like grape, creepers, and passiflora.

Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Not typically

Is it rare? These caterpillars are never very common, but due their size and colors they are often noticed where they occur.

What does it turn into? The gorgeous elephant hawk moth

Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, these are possible to raise

The Gorgeous Elephant Hawk Moth

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Resources

The following sources were consulted for this guide:

http://sciencewows.ie/blog/mystery-creature-revealed_drinker-moth/

https://owlcation.com/stem/caterpillar-identification-2

https://owlcation.com/stem/caterpillar-identification

https://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/identification

https://www.projectnoah.org/missions/857461

Comments

Lexi on October 25, 2019:

This is a great article with great high quality pictures. Good information. I'm raising polyphemus with my mom. Thanks for the article.

Ed Palumbo from Tualatin, OR on July 02, 2019:

I enjoyed this Hub and appreciate the information provided. I will look more closely at the caterpillars in my environment!