Nature is amazing and there are several caterpillars that mimic snakes. If you have recently seen what you think may be a small snake but are unsure, or you are not sure if you saw a caterpillar or snake, continue reading to find out about these caterpillars’ amazing mimicking abilities.
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How Do Caterpillars Resemble Snakes
These caterpillars can resemble a snake, some can transform themselves into small snake-like creatures. Some will puff the front part of their body to rearrange their colors and spots. They may have eye spots, reptilian scales, and a serpent curve.
Some of these caterpillars have large eye spots on the thorax, which gives them a snake-like appearance, while others have a green coloration. The green coloration, combined with eye spots makes predators second guess their opportunity, thinking they have encountered a poisonous green snake, rather than an innocent caterpillar.
There are caterpillars with stripes down their sides, banding, and then there are those that are brightly colored. Bright colors are often a sign of something dangerous. Others will lift their head like a snake, scaring off any potential threats.
Why Do Some Caterpillars Look Like Snakes
The majority of caterpillars that are snake-like use their natural ability to scare off any predators, especially birds. Caterpillars are also easy prey for larger insects, rodents, and reptiles. With their snake-like appearance, predators are less likely to take the chance of capturing them.
Caterpillars That Look Like Snakes
The caterpillars that look like snakes include:
1. Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Caterpillar
The Eastern tiger swallowtail caterpillar (Papilio glaucus) is a brown and white caterpillar when it is young. The color changes as the caterpillar ages, turning to green with orange and black eye spots. The eye spots are deceptive and help protect the caterpillar from predators, making it look more like a snake than a caterpillar.
These caterpillars feed on host plant leaves, resting on a silk pad on the leaf, while the edges of the leaf fold over the caterpillar, wrapped in silk. When they are young they are brown with a white saddle on the abdomen. They change to green in the fourth growth stage with a swollen thorax and black and orange eye spots.
This caterpillar can grow to 5.5 centimeters in length
2. Spicebush Swallowtail Caterpillar
When this caterpillar (Papilio troilus) first hatches, it is dark brown or black and has a white streak or spot. When young, the spicebush swallowtail caterpillar looks similar to bird droppings protecting it from predators.
This caterpillar goes through five growth stages. In the first three stages, the caterpillar resembles bird droppings, but by the fourth stage, it is too big and turns green or orange with large eye spots. At this stage, the caterpillar looks similar to a snake’s head.
When they are startled, they curl their head under, raising themselves like a snake would raise its head. In addition to this, these caterpillars are active at night to avoid predators, spending their days wrapped in leaves.
They pupate early in the season with a green chrysalis, blending in with the surrounding leaves. If it is later in the season when the leaves are turning brown, the chrysalis is also brown, making it look like a dead leaf.
3. Tersa Sphinx Caterpillar
The Tersa sphinx caterpillar (Xylophanes tersa) is an excellent example of a snake-mimicking caterpillar. It has realistic eye spots on the first abdominal segment. They can vary in appearance with some being light green with light eye spots, while others are dark with vivid eye spots. They have a horn at the rear, which is visible in all variants.
These caterpillars can grow to three inches and will crawl to the soil when matured and burrow into plant debris. The pupa is tan with eye spots on the abdomen. These caterpillars are common in honeysuckle, milkweed, and Chinese violent host plants.
This caterpillar is completely harmless to humans and can be removed safely from host plants by hand.
4. Great Orange-tip Caterpillar
The great orange-tip caterpillar (Hebomoia glaucippe) can make itself look like a vine snake that is ready to strike at any moment. They spit green fluid if they are harassed. There are orange and blue markings on the head, which look like snake eyes. They are also able to make their heads look larger than they are, making them look intimidating to any predators.
While these are not large caterpillars and only grow to a few centimeters in length, they will do their best to mimic a snake if they feel in danger. They lift their heads, making them look like a snake that is ready to strike. They inflate the segments at the front legs, which gives them a snake-like appearance.
The caterpillar is tapered at each end with small tubercles. They are dark green with a blue line and small red spots. The legs are green and the prothoracic legs have black borders, widening in the middle.
The caterpillar that resembles the green vine snake (Ahaetulla nasuta) can be found in India and Southeast Asia and is known as the red Helen swallowtail caterpillar. It looks like a scary green snake.
When it feels threatened it has two-pronged horns that emit a foul odor, helping to deter any predators. When they mature, they turn into beautiful butterflies that are black with white spots and red detailing on the wings.
5. Giant Swallowtail Caterpillar
The giant swallowtail caterpillar (Papilio cresphontes) looks like bird droppings when it first hatches. The pattern changes as the caterpillar grows. They stay brown with cream and white patches. Once fully grown they mimic a small brown snake if you view them head-on.
This caterpillar goes through five growth stages. They are nocturnal and feed at night. While their appearance changes during each growth stage, they have amazing camouflage patterns which help protect them from any predators.
6. Gaudy Sphinx
This brown caterpillar (Eumorpha labruscae) has large eye spots on the side of its head and a single eye spot at the rear of its body. It has yellow banding and patterns on the body that looks similar to a snake. Its head starts to bulge as it ages, helping it crease the shape of a snake’s head.
A black spine becomes evident in the eye spot on the rear of the body. Its snake-like appearance helps this caterpillar survive. They are often seen on the ground or in trees. When they first hatch, they resemble the head of a snake.
When they pupate, they make their way to the ground below the host plant and burrow into the ground below. When the pupa is ready it makes its way back to the surface.
7. Silver-spotted Skipper Caterpillar
The silver-spotted skipper caterpillar (Epargyreus clarus) has a wrinkled body. It is yellow-green with a brown-red head and a pair of orange eye spots. They consume the leaves of vines, shrubs, trees, and herbs.
They are usually encountered in swamps and meadows, growing to five centimeters in length. Their predators include ants, birds, spiders, frogs, and wasps.
8. Two-tailed Swallowtail Caterpillar
The two-tailed swallowtail caterpillar (Papilio multicaudata) has thin black, yellow, and white stripes. They have yellow faces and are green when they are younger.
The head is wide at the head. Two small eye spots can be seen just behind the head with a black and white collar. There is light blue dots on the segment just before the collar and then on segments three to six.
These caterpillars feed on the leaves of ash trees, hoptrees, and chokecherry.
9. Palamedes Swallowtail Caterpillar
These caterpillars (Papilio palamedes) are green with false eye spots located on the thorax. There are blue spots on the first to eighth abdominal segments. They live in leaf shelters, helping protect them from predators.
As they age, the caterpillar turns to a solid green. Just before they pupate, they turn yellow. One eye spot is larger than the other and sometimes the one is completely overlooked.
10. Abbott’s Sphinx Caterpillar
The Abbott’s sphinx caterpillar (Sphecodina abbottii) has white markings on the sides and an eye spot on the rear. They turn a pink-brown, though some individuals remain green.
The young caterpillars are light green with a horn. As they age they have brown knobs appear near the rear. Fully grown, these caterpillars are more than seven centimeters in length and can have brown bands with pale green spots on the back and an eye spot on the rear or they can be solid brown with an eye spot.
The eye spots mimic a snake. If you pick one up and accidentally pinch or poke it, it will squeak and bite. These caterpillars do not have hair. They feed on grape leaves.
Numerous of the predators of Abbott’s sphinx caterpillars are wary of snakes and the eye spot helps this caterpillar resemble a snake, scaring away smaller predators. They also have a lashing behavior, which is startling to prey.
11. Elephant Hawk Moth Caterpillar
The elephant hawk moth caterpillar (Deilephila elpenor) is yellow-white to green when they are young. They become brown-gray with black dots, that run the length of the body as they age. They have horns that match the color of the body. These caterpillars can grow to more than seven centimeters in length, weighing up to 7.5 grams.
It is not uncommon for fully-grown caterpillars to remain green. They have eye spots on the side of their body and their wings when they are fully grown adults. The eye spots resemble snake eyes and help deter predators.
When threatened, these caterpillars can widen the anterior of the body in a defense posture, which emphasizes the eye spots. When they retract, the caterpillar’s head looks larger and the eye spots behind the head make it look like a larger animal.
12. Bedstraw Hawkmoth Caterpillar
The bedstraw hawkmoth caterpillar (Hyles gallii) is a blue-green caterpillar that is smooth. They have a pink belly with a pale yellow line that runs down the center of the back. There are eye spots on each side of the green head.
They have a red horn just above the tail. These caterpillars are common in August and September and the moth emerges in the middle of summer. The caterpillars grow to around eight centimeters in length.
Their color can vary with some being olive green with yellow spots or black with yellow spots and red on the side of the head. There are ten spots on the body that look like a row of eyes.
13. Pluto Sphinx
The pluto sphinx caterpillar (Xylophanes pluto) feeds on the underside of leaves. They spend their day hiding and feeding at night. When they are disturbed, this caterpillar retracts the thoracic segments into the first abdominal segments, resembling a snake and protecting it from predators.
The caterpillars prefer Pentas lanceolata or Hamelia patens as their host plants. These plants grow in bush form and younger caterpillars are seen at the top of the plants, resting under the leaves during the day.
As they age, they move to the middle or base of the host plant and hide in the center of the plant during the day. When they reach their third growth stage, these caterpillars have a defensive posture, resembling that of a snake. They can sit with their thoracic segments extended and not attach to the plant.
They are regular visitors in suburban and urban yards where Pentas is planted. These caterpillars are common throughout the year in Texas and Florida. The caterpillars, when in their green form, are fluorescent under UV light. They are usually spotted at night when they are feeding. Due to the fact that adult caterpillars hide under half-eaten leaves, it’s not uncommon to spot them during daylight hours.