Saturday, 7 July 2012

Proserpina in the underworld

Yesterday I was harvesting shallots in the potager when a creature surged out of the freshly-broken ground in front of me. My first thought was that I had disturbed some kind of snake, with a pointed snout and a grey, apparently scaly, back. Any small predator such as a weasel would back off immediately when confronted by this display. Then the tail emerged revealing the animal to be a chubby critter just over two inches long, rather short for a snake, although at full stretch in "attack" mode it was a good three inches! Tim came over hastily from mowing and pronounced it to be a hawkmoth caterpillar, but not one he recognised. It has a single eye spot in the middle of its tail, tiny spots of blue and red in black rings on its sides, and lacks a tail spike.

Actually it's rather cute!
Shown against Tim's finger gives a scale to the beasty!

Consultation of the "oracle" (Michael Chinery) identified it as proserpinus proserpina, a species lacking an English common name but whose French name, Sphinx de l'épilobe, translates as the willowherb hawk moth. It also feeds on evening primrose and purple loosestrife, and has been identified as a pollinator of the greater butterfly orchid, platanthera chlorantha. The INPN web site informs us that this is a regulated species on the Red List of insect species for France. The Inventaire National du Patrimoine Naturel only has three records for Indre-et-Loire. Since its home had already been destroyed by accident, we placed it on a molehill in the meadow by some willowherb plants in the hope that it will be able to bury itself again if it so prefers, with its food species nearby but out of reach of large bipeds with gardening forks.

Back on the ground, "scales" showing up nicely.
The scientific name, considering that the caterpillar came out from under the ground, is interesting in itself. Proserpina (Persephone in Greek myth) was the daughter of the Roman goddess Ceres (the Greek Demeter), who was the Earth Mother and "the protectrice of agriculture, and of all the fruits of the earth". Proserpina was sleeping in a flowery meadow when Hades, the god of the underworld, saw her, fell madly in love and carried her off. Ceres pined for her and winter came into the world. Proserpina pined for her mother and her flowers, and generally made life hell for Hades. Eventually husband and mother came to an agreement: Proserpina would spend six months of the year with Hades and six months with Ceres. Winter ended, spring came and the cycle of the seasons began.

Another side view... showing the tail end.
The catterpillar getting an advanced look at what it will become.


Susan said...

Fantastic! I guessed it was a caterpillar, but no idea what sort. What a great record (of the species and the observation).

GaynorB said...

Very 'snake-like'.

Diane said...

Great photos, I am glad you realised what it was. Diane

Niall & Antoinette said...

what an impressive beastie!!

Pollygarter said...

Thanks all - I just hope it survived being handled