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Last Updated: Thursday, 14 August, 2003, 16:58 GMT 17:58 UK
Second rare moth caterpillar spotted
Death's head caterpillar
Adult moths can be spotted in the summer but caterpillars are a rare sight
An Essex man has made the second sighting in a week of a rare death's head hawk moth caterpillar.

Ronald Hickey, 30, spotted the huge, colourful caterpillar while he was watering his garden on Wednesday.

He contacted BBC News Online after reading about a similar discovery by potato researchers at the University of Wales, in Bangor.

An insect expert has now confirmed both reports and said the distance between them could mean even more sightings this summer.

The moth, which featured in the horror film Silence of the Lambs, starring Anthony Hopkins, takes its name from the characteristic skull and crossbones on its back.

It was very big, well the biggest caterpillar I've ever seen
Ronald Hickey
The Essex caterpillar dropped from a bush at the bottom of Mr Hickey's garden in Dagenham.

"I thought it was odd, I'd never seen anything like it before in the garden," he said.

"I nudged it but I didn't pick it up in case it was poisonous. I took a couple of pictures with my mobile phone but it had gone when I went to show my fiancee.

"I'd say it was about 9-10cm long. It was very big, well the biggest caterpillar I've ever seen."

Mr Hickey only realised what he had found when he posted a query on a gardening internet site and a respondent identified the caterpillar.

Dr Ian Kitching, an entomologist from the National History Museum, said he was impressed the second caterpillar had been found so far away from the Welsh sighting.

Death's head hawk moth
Caterpillars will pupate and adult moths hatch after four weeks

"Given the distance, it is unlikely that the same female laid both eggs," he said.

"This means that at least two female moths had arrived in this country separately, with the possibility therefore of even more."

Dr Kitching said the moth is native of sub Sahara Africa and although it is now rarely seen in this country, 60 to 70 years ago it was a common sight during summertime.

"Even into the 50s it used to be much more frequently found when lots of people went out potato picking in the first week of October.

"Now that potato picking is mechanised people are not out there looking for them."

But he warned people to beware if they do spot the unusual creatures.

"They will get a shock if they pick it up, caterpillars can bite, they click their jaws together and it will hurt.

"But there is no danger of any disease," said Dr Kitching.

'Death's Head' caterpillar found
14 Aug 03  |  North West Wales


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