Pulling air into the gut helps sphinx hawk moth larvae make their own teakettle howl
Tap — gently — the plump rear of a young Nessus sphinx hawk moth, and you may hear the closest sound yet discovered to a caterpillar voice.
Caterpillars don’t breathe through their mouths. Yet a Nessus sphinx hawk moth, if disturbed, will emit from its open mouth a sustained hiss followed by a string of scratchy burplike sounds. “Hard to describe,” says animal behaviorist Jayne Yack of Carleton University in Ottawa, who urges people just to listen to it for themselves.
This newfound noise from young Amphion floridensis may startle birds or other would-be predators not expecting something as generally quiet as most caterpillars to erupt in sound.
The discovery marks the fourth sound-producing mechanism in caterpillars that Yack and colleagues have found. Some caterpillars use their spiracles, respiratory pores along the flanks, to toot sounds. Caterpillars take in oxygen and release waste carbon dioxide through these pores.