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Caterpillars of India: A Photo Guide to Common Species

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How to Use This Guide to Caterpillars of India

For every caterpillar listed, this guide will tell you the following essential information:

Scientific Name: This is the insect's Latin name that scientists use

Taxonomy: Describes related species

Larval Food Plant: The kind of plant that the caterpillar eats

Range: Where you can expect to find this insect

Is the Caterpillar Toxic?: This tells you when not to touch!

If you still have questions about identifying the caterpillar you found, there are good internet sources that are species-specific and can give you more detail.

One of the Caterpillars Described in This Guide

Caterpillar of the common nawab butterfly

Caterpillar of the common nawab butterfly

What Are Caterpillars?

Caterpillars are the immature or "larval" stage of butterflies and moths. This huge group of fascinating insects is called Lepidoptera. They are very commonly known around the world. There is hardly anyone who has not seen a butterfly or moth, whether drinking nectar at flowers or flying around lights at night. Butterflies usually fly in the day, and moths fly at night.

Caterpillars, the immature forms, are eating machines. 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 usually never see 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!

One of India's Beautiful Caterpillars

The caterpillar of Papilio clytia, the common mime butterfly

The caterpillar of Papilio clytia, the common mime butterfly

Caterpillars Change Into Butterflies and Moths

Butterflies and moths go through "complete metamorphosis" – that is, they have four distinct stages: egg, larva, pupa, adult. The caterpillar is the larval stage, and all it does is eat and store energy for the adult stage. They are basically eating machines whose only goal is to store fat for the adult stage.

Caterpillars are cool! They are often camouflaged, but many have bright colors and patterns that may serve to warn or scare away predators like birds. Most caterpillars are totally harmless, but a few species are protected by stinging spines.

The four stages of complete metamorphosis in the emperor moth

The four stages of complete metamorphosis in the emperor moth

Basic Facts About India

India (officially the Republic of India) is a country in South Asia. It is a vast country – second in population only to China, and the seventh-largest country by area of land. It is bounded on the southeast by the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea on the southeast. India’s neighbors in the Indian Ocean are Sri Lanka and the Maldives. It is a land of mountains and plains and climate extremes, and accordingly India is host to a stunning variety of wildlife. This guide to some of the caterpillars of India is ample evidence of the diversity that India boasts.

India’s forests cover just over 20% of its land mass, and wildlife is traditionally respected and protected.

The caterpillar of the common crow butterfly, Euploea core

The caterpillar of the common crow butterfly, Euploea core

The Common Crow

Euploea core, the common crow butterfly, occurs throughout India, Australia, and many places in between. It is a member of the Danaidae family, which means it shares ancestry with Monarch butterfly of the Western Hemisphere and many other butterflies. There are other “crow” butterflies, along with the closely related “tigers.”

The common crow is a medium-sized, brown-black butterfly with bright, light-colored trailing edges to its wings. It has a slow, gliding flight that likely reflects the fact that it is unpalatable to birds and other predators thanks to the toxic sap of the plants the caterpillar eats. Many other butterflies may gain protection also by imitating the appearance of inedible insects like the common crow, a process called Batesian mimicry.

The Basics:

Scientific Name: Euploea core

Taxonomy: This species is in the family Danaidae, along with the monarch

Larval Foodplant: Toxic plants like dogbanes, milkweeds, and oleanders

Range: Very widespread across Africa, India, and into Australia

Is the Caterpillar Toxic?: Yes, but only if ingested; not to the touch.

The Common Crow Butterfly

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The caterpillar of the Malabar Tree Nymph butterfly, Idea malabarica

The caterpillar of the Malabar Tree Nymph butterfly, Idea malabarica

The Malabar Tree Nymph

This caterpillar can be found in South India, especially in the Western Ghats. The flight is reported as weak and fluttery, with much time spent gliding; this gives the species the common name of "paper kite." Along with its relative the common crow, this butterfly is believed to be unpalatable to predators.

The Basics:

Scientific Name: Idea malabarica

Taxonomy: This species is in the family Danaidae

Larval Foodplant: Toxic plants like dogbanes, milkweeds, and oleanders

Range: South India

Is the Caterpillar Toxic?: Yes, but only if ingested; not to the touch.

The Malabar Tree Nymph Butterfly

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A caterpillar typical of swallowtails in the genus Graphium

A caterpillar typical of swallowtails in the genus Graphium

Genus Graphium -- Swordtails and Related Species

Graphium is a genus of mostly tropical swallowtail butterflies. They are sometimes called swordtails due to the straight sharp swallowtails that many species have on the hind wings. There are over 100 species, several of which occur in India. The butterflies are generally similar in appearance, but some have blue-green wings, and at least one is a mimic of an entirely different group. These butterflies are often sighted at mud puddles.

The Basics:

Scientific Name: Many species in the genus Graphium and others

Taxonomy: This species is in the family Papilio, the swallowtails. This family is world-wide and includes some of our most beautiful insects.

Larval Foodplant: Many plants, including Magnoliaceae (commonly), Lauraceae (commonly), amd Rutaceae.

Range: Very widespread across Africa, India, and into Australia

Is the Caterpillar Toxic?: No

A Typical Graphium Swallowtail

Graphium agetes adult butterfly

Graphium agetes adult butterfly

The caterpillar of Papilio clytia, the common mime, a kind of swallowtail

The caterpillar of Papilio clytia, the common mime, a kind of swallowtail

Papilio Clytia, the Common Mime

This butterfly is common, and true to its name it is a good mimic of other large white butterflies in India and beyond. Since it resembles other species protected by by tasting bad to birds, this butterfly is seen to be a mime or a mimic. This kind of protection is called "Batesian mimicry."

Like all swallowtails, the caterpillar has red scent organs it can pop out from behind its head. This may deter predators

The Basics:

Scientific Name: Papilio clytia

Taxonomy: This species is in the family Papilio, the swallowtails, a world-wide group

Larval Foodplant: Primarily species of the laurel family Lauraceae.

Range: Very widespread across Africa, India, and into Australia

Is the Caterpillar Toxic?: No.

Adult common mime butterfly. Notice how it "mimes" the paper kite butterfly.

Adult common mime butterfly. Notice how it "mimes" the paper kite butterfly.

Caterpillar of the pioneer white butterfly

Caterpillar of the pioneer white butterfly

Belenois Aurota, the Pioneer

Belenois aurota, also known as the pioneer white or caper white, is a small to medium-sized butterfly of the family Pieridae. This large group includes the yellows and whites, which is found in South Asia and Africa. The caterpillar feeds on capers and related plants. This species is related to one of the most common butterflies in the world, the "cabbage white," Artogeia rapae. The caterpillar is well-camouflaged among the leaves and stems of the food plant.

The Basics:

Scientific Name: Belenois aurota

Taxonomy: This species is in the family Peridae, the whites

Larval Foodplant: Capers and related plants

Range: Very widespread across India, and beyond

Is the Caterpillar Toxic?: No

The Caper White Butterfly

The pioneer white butterfly

The pioneer white butterfly

Caterpillar of the common nawab, Polyura athamas

Caterpillar of the common nawab, Polyura athamas

Polyura Athamas, the Common Nawab

This beautiful species is in the genus Polyura, which includes the "Nawab" butterflies, striking and widespread insects of the Indo-Australian region. There are many species, and they share a powerful flight and attractive coloration. Many of these species are considered desirable by collectors; a few are rare and may be protected in parts of their range.

The caterpillars typically have a "crown of thorns" behind the head, that may serve to brush off parasitic wasps and flies when they attempt to land and lay eggs on the back of the insect.

The Basics:

Scientific Name: Polyura athamas

Taxonomy: They belong to the Charaxinae, a widespread and often-seen subfamily of butterflies

Larval Foodplant: species of plants in the family Fabaceae; this includes many kinds of Acacias.

Range: In the Himalayas from Kashmir to Sikkim, the hills of central India and the Eastern Ghats, the Western Ghats and southern India.

Is the Caterpillar Toxic?: No

Common nawab butterfly

Common nawab butterfly

The caterpillar of the apefly

The caterpillar of the apefly

Pupae of the apefly, showing resemblance to the face of a monkey or ape

Pupae of the apefly, showing resemblance to the face of a monkey or ape

Spalgis Epius, the Apefly

This butterfly is one of very few whose caterpillar is carnivorous. Added to that, the pupa bears a resemblance to a monkey's face, which gives thi species its common name.

While nearly all caterpillars eat leaves, this group has evolved to eat scale insects, which are sedentary little creatures that suck the juice from plant leaves and stems. There are other members of this group, including in North America. They are not typically common, but the adult may be found around the mealy bugs' host plants.

The adult is small and fragile, with a lovely subtle pattern on the underside.

The Basics:

Scientific Name: Spalgis epius

Taxonomy: This species is part of a sub-group within the large family Lycaenidae

Larval Foodplant: Small insects called mealybugs

Range: Widespread across India and beyond

Is the Caterpillar Toxic?: No

Adult Apefly Butterfly

Adult apefly butterfly

Adult apefly butterfly

Caterpillar of Polytela gloriosae, the Indian Lily Moth

Caterpillar of Polytela gloriosae, the Indian Lily Moth

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Polytela Gloriosae, the Indian Lily Moth

This is a colourful species, in both the adult and caterpillar stages. The caterpillar is more often noticed than the moth, however, and is well-known throughout the country as the Indian lily caterpillar.

The caterpillar is smooth and purple-black with a series of white spots on back and sides and purplish blotches. It feeds on lilies and related plants. Even though it can be a pest at times, its appearance brightens a garden.

The Basics:

Scientific Name: Polytela gloriosae

Taxonomy: This species is in the family Noctuidae, a very large group of moths that occurs world-wide

Larval Foodplant: Lilies

Range: Throughout India

Is the Caterpillar Toxic?: No.

The Indian Lily Moth

Adult Polytela gloriosae

Adult Polytela gloriosae

Caterpillar of Asota caricae

Caterpillar of Asota caricae

Asota Caricae, the Tropical Tiger Moth

The tropical tiger moth species Asota caricae has been identified as the cause of outbreaks of allergic reactions among people, some of them quite serious. There are many kind of tiger moths around the world, and some of them have caterpillars with irritating spines or fur. It's unusual to have the moth be implicated as well.

Like many tiger moths, the adult has bold coloring and is actually quite attractive.

The Basics:

Scientific Name: Asota caricae

Taxonomy: This species is in the very large Family Arctiidae (some place this as a subfamily in the Erebidae)

Larval Foodplant: Ficus, Broussonetia, Mesua, Tectona and Shorea species

Range: Found from the Indo-Australian tropics of India and Sri Lanka to Queensland and Vanuatu.

Is the Caterpillar Toxic?: This species may trigger serious allergic reactions.

The Tropical Tiger Moth Asota caricae

Adult Asota caricae tiger moth

Adult Asota caricae tiger moth

The caterpillar of Xanthodes transversa

The caterpillar of Xanthodes transversa

Xanthodes Transversa, the Transverse Moth

Xanthodes transversa is also known as the transverse moth or hibiscus caterpillar. It's much more noticeable as a caterpillar than as the adult moth, which is pale brown with darker lines. It is found , is a moth of the family Nolidae. The species was first described by Achille Guenée in 1852. It is found in a very wide area beyond the borders of India.

The caterpillar can be a serious pest of cultivated hibiscus plants.

The Basics:

Scientific Name: Xanthodes transvera

Taxonomy: This species is in the family Nolidae

Larval Foodplant: Hibiscus, but also okra (bhendi), Abelmoschus esculentus, Abelmoschus crinitus, Sida, Alcea rosea, Citrus, and Grewia tiliaefolia

Range: India, Sri Lanka, the Andaman Islands, the Nicobar Islands, China, Hong Kong, Vanuatu, Java, New Guinea, Japan, the Ryukyu Islands, Singapore, Indonesia and Australia.

Is the Caterpillar Toxic?: No.

The Transverse Moth

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The caterpillar of the golden emperor moth

The caterpillar of the golden emperor moth

Loepa Katinka, the Golden Emperor Moth

This is one of several emperor moths in India and elsewhere. It belongs to the large family Saturniidae, which includes some of the world's most striking insects. The adult moths typically do not feed, leaving all of the eating in the insect's lifespan to the caterpillar. Perhaps for this reason, the caterpillars of Saturniidae species are typically very big and heavy.They often have horns, tubercles, and spines.

The caterpillars spin cocoons that are often visible on the host plant. These are not the same group as commercial silk moths.

The Basics:

Scientific Name: Loepa katinka

Taxonomy: This species is in the family Saturniidae, the giant silk moths

Larval Foodplant: A variety of plants

Range: Found in Southeast Asia and South Asia.

Is the Caterpillar Toxic?: No

Golden Emperor Moth

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The caterpillar of Spodoptera litura

The caterpillar of Spodoptera litura

Spodoptera Litura, the Tobacco Cutworm

Spodoptera litura ii is a moth species that beongs to the very large family Noctuidae. This group includes many species that are serious pests in gardens and agriculture around the work. The cutworms are especially notorious for damaging plants; they ive in the soil and come out to eat leaves, and often bite through the plant stalk at the base, hence the na,e "cutworm."

Spodoptera litura is a serious pest of cotton and tobacco plants in Asia, Oceania, and the Indian subcontinent The species can destroy economically important agricultural crops. They can be very difficult to control.

The Basics:

Scientific Name: Spodoptera litura

Taxonomy: This species is in the huge family Noctuidae

Larval Foodplant: Commercial crops like cotton and tobacco

Range: Very widespread across Asia and India

Is the Caterpillar Toxic?: No

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Caterpillars of Asota plana

Caterpillars of Asota plana

Asota Plana

These caterpillars are virtually impossible to miss. They are brightly striped and tend to gather together on the leaves of the foodplant, where you may see them just passing by. As you may guess, this means that they actually want to be seen -- their colors likely indicate that they are protected by having distasteful or even toxic body tissues. There are several other caterpillar species that feature this same pattern, and they are typically unpalatable to predators.

The Basics:

Scientific Name: Asota Plana

Taxonomy: This species is in the family Erebidae, a fairly new taxon that was split off from the Noctuidae

Larval Foodplant: Ficus species

Range: Much of the Indian subcontinent, through to New Guinea

Is the Caterpillar Toxic?: Yes, but only if ingested; not to the touch.

Adult Moth of Asota plana

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A slug moth caterpilar

A slug moth caterpilar

The Limacodidae or Eucleidae: Slug Caterpillars

This is a very large group that is distributed throughout the world. They are generally known as "slug caterpillars" because they have suction-cup feet and move in a gliding or rippling motion, like a slug. Another feature of this group is their often wild colouration and shape, which can at times approach a neon sign or a sea slug.

Finally, nearly all of these caterpillars can sting. They have sharp spines or hairs along the body that have a small amount of venom; if you brush up against one, it feels like a stinging nettle. Highly sensitive people with allergies may be a risk for a serious reaction to the stings of these caterpillars, but for the most part the venom is mild.

The adult moths are mostly brown and nondescript, but some have striking green camouflage. Most people never notice them.

The Basics:

Scientific Name: Family Limacodidae or Eucleidae

Taxonomy: Many of slug caterpillars occur worldwide

Larval Foodplant: Various, depending on species

Range: Many species in India

Is the Caterpillar Toxic?: Yes -- these caterpillars can sting

Adult Limacodid Moth

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The caterpillar of the leea hawk moth

The caterpillar of the leea hawk moth

Theretra Latreillii, the Pale Brown Hawk Moth

This insect belongs to family Sphingidae, a group of moths called the hawk or sphinx moths. The caterpillars all have some features in common: they never have fur or bristles, they are typically large, and nearly all have a single horn protruding from the rear end. The purpose of the horn -- which gives caterpillars in this group their common name, "horn worms" -- is not clear. It likely serves to protect the caterpillar in some way.

This species, common across India, is very typical of the group. The adult has a heavy body and streamlined wings, and the caterpillar has typical markings along the side and a caudal horn on the last segment.

The Basics:

Scientific Name: Theretra Latreillii

Taxonomy: This species is in the family Sphingidae, a large worldwide group

Larval Foodplants: Parthenocissus quinquefolia, Cayratia clematidea, Cayratia corniculata, Impatiens walleriana, Leea indica, Lagerstroemia indica and Fuchsia

Range: Most of Asia, including Borneo, China, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Taiwan and also in the tropical regions of Australia.

Is the Caterpillar Toxic?: No

Adult Pale Brown Hawk Moth

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The caterpillar of Daphnis nehrii, the oleander hawk moth

The caterpillar of Daphnis nehrii, the oleander hawk moth

Daphnis Nerii, the Oleander Hawk Moth

This insect is in family Sphingidae, like the previous species. You can see how variable the members of this family can be -- from the plain brown wings of the last species to the gorgeous green and purple shades of the present one. But they are both members of the same family. One way to tell is the harn on the last segments of the large, smooth caterpillar.

The caterpillar feeds on the leaves of the oleander plant. The entire plant is highly toxic, and this toxicity likely gives the caterpillar protection against predators like birds.

The Basics:

Scientific Name: Daphnis nerii

Taxonomy: This species is in the family Sphingidae, along with many other "hawk mohts"

Larval Foodplant: Oleanders

Range: Africa, Asia and certain Hawaiian Islands

Is the Caterpillar Toxic?: Yes, but only if ingested; not to the touch.

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Caterpillar of the marumba hawkmoth

Caterpillar of the marumba hawkmoth

Marumba Quercus: The Oak Hawk Moth

This is another hawk moth, related to the brown and oleander hawk. The caterpillar feeds on oak, and has the typical form of a caterpillar in the family Sphingidae. This species is very similar to a moth in North America, the big poplar sphinx.

The Basics:

Scientific Name: Marumba quercus

Taxonomy: This species is in the family Sphingidae, like the previous two species.

Larval Foodplant: Oak leaves

Range: Found in southern Europe, North Africa, the Near East and Mesopotamia.

Is the Caterpillar Toxic?: No.

Adult marumba hawkmoth

Adult marumba hawkmoth

The caterpillar of the Eligma narcissus moth

The caterpillar of the Eligma narcissus moth

Eligma Narcissus, the Ailanthus Defoliator

This caterpillar can be found in groups on the leaves of ailanthis trees, and on occasion it can be numerous enough to strip the leaves from entire trees. The beautiful adult moth is not often seen.

The Basics:

Scientific Name: Eligma narcissus

Taxonomy: This species is in the family Nolidae

Larval Foodplant: Ailanthis leaves

Range: Widespread across India and beyond

Is the Caterpillar Toxic?: No.

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Caterpillars of India

Thank you for visiting this guide to the caterpillars of India. If you did not find your caterpillar with this guide, I wish you luck on your further searches.

Resources

The following sources were consulted for this guide:

https://www.ifoundbutterflies.org/

https://www.biologydiscussion.com/invertebrate-zoology/phylum-arthropoda/top-22-insect-species-found-in-india/33456

https://www.learnaboutbutterflies.com/Asia%20-%20%20thumbs%201.htm

https://www.nhbs.com/geometrid-moths-of-india-book

http://nationalmothweek.org/2018/07/26/the-moths-of-india-website-and-mothing-event-guest-post-by-sanjay-sondhi/

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Comments

Liz Westwood from UK on October 14, 2020:

This is an interesting and extremely well-illustrated article.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on October 13, 2020:

Hi GreenMind, I enjoy the read with interest. Butterfly and moth meant much to me. Story increases my knowledge bank. Thanks.