Hemeroplanes triptolemus, ladies and gentlemen, wins the prize for finest invertebrate mimicry for its superb portrayal of a deadly snake!
The snake mimic caterpillar, which is native to the Amazon jungles, matures into a relatively unattractive moth of the Sphingidae family, yet in its larval stage, it employs a remarkable survival strategy. Sphinx moth caterpillars are essentially energy-rich ‘nom-nuggets’ offered on a bed of lush greens for the jungle’s predators if they don’t have a solid defense mechanism in place.
To avoid this destiny, the moth’s larva grows and exposes its underside in the shape of a snake’s head, complete with black eyes and even light reflections.
However, it is not a simple task. The caterpillar begins its protective maneuver by twisting and thrusting itself backwards, revealing hidden colors of yellow, white, and black on its underbelly. It then inhales air through tiny openings on its sides (called spiracles) and pumps it to the front of its body. When the segments are inflated, the caterpillar takes on the appearance of a poisonous snake, replete with a diamond-shaped “face” and big black eyes.
If the “deadly” (and expensive) outfit isn’t enough to scare away a predator like a lizard or a bird, the caterpillar may strike like a snake to add to the impression.
Although diversion (the use of eyespots to divert predators’ attention away from the head) is widespread in animals, the snake mimic caterpillar’s fake face is placed on the same end as its genuine one.
“Deflection might not function well for a caterpillar since the caterpillar would most likely die if any portion of its body is penetrated or ripped off by an assailant,” says Dr. Thomas Hossie, a specialist on eyespots. “The goal of this defense is to intimidate or startle an assailant into fleeing rather than risk a fatal meeting with a snake.”
We also know of a moth that, when fully evolved, camouflages as a snake, and the cost of this sort of disguise is likewise rather expensive in terms of energy.
But this person appears to outshine everyone else in the animal realm when it comes to the coolest snake costume ever.