British moth caterpillar picture gallery introduction
There are over 2,600 species of moth in the British Isles but only a small percentage of their caterpillars are commonly seen unless actively searched for. The gallery also includes some of the species less likely to be found.
Examples of many of the most distinctive moth caterpillars are shown, including some of the largest, hairiest, most colourful, best camouflaged and most bizarre looking. The gallery also includes some of the few caterpillars found in the British Isles that may at times be considered pests or even a health threat.
Why do many British moths have English names that appear unrelated to their appearance?
This question is understandably often asked. The reason being that many names refer to the appearance of the caterpillar rather than the adult moth. The most frequently enquired about species of caterpillar, the magnificent Elephant Hawk-moth, is a good example.
Many of the most recognisable species are included but there are also some that are very difficult to to identify from a photo.
It is always worth bearing in mind when trying to identify a moth caterpillar that many species have caterpillars that change appearance dramatically as they grow and moult. And many species even have several different colour forms in the same brood. Some of these variations may be included in the species life-cycle information.
There is still much to learn about the early stages of many moths. Whilst every effort is made to provide accurate identifications and information errors could occur. Should an error be spotted please let us know.
Ghost moth and Swift caterpillars- the Hepialidae family
There are only five species of caterpillar in the Hepialidae family found in the British Isles. All of which live in the ground, feeding on the roots of grasses and various plants. Consequently they are unlikely to be found unless the ground is disturbed. Four of the species are the caterpillars of the Swift moths while the other is the caterpillar of the Ghost Moth. The caterpillars of the five species can be difficult to distinguish between.
Goat moth caterpillar- the Cossidae family
There are only three caterpillar species in the Cossidae family in the British Isles. Of these, the species we receive the most enquiries about is the extraordinary caterpillar of the Goat Moth (subfamily Cossinae). This large caterpillar, up to 100mm long, lives for several years inside the tree trunks of a variety of deciduous trees, during which time it is unlikely to be seen. It is only when fully grown and ready to pupate that it is sometimes encountered wandering in search of somewhere to pupate. Otherwise, the caterpillar’s large exit holes in the bark may provide the best indication of the moth’s presence in the area. The Leopard moth, Zeuzera pyrina, (sub family Zeuzerinae) is unlikely to be found unless cutting down a tree as it spends its life boring within the trunk and pupates under the bark.
Burnet moth caterpillars – the Zygaenidae family
Large and hairy caterpillars – the Lasiocampidae family
The caterpillars in this family are some of the most regularly seen. Their dense hairs protect them from most birds enabling them to sit out, exposed, during the day. The caterpillars of The Drinker Moth, Fox Moth and Oak Eggar are three of the most frequently sighted caterpillars in the British Isles.
Emperor Moth caterpillars of the silk worm Saturnidae family
In the British Isles the Emperor moth is the only species of Saturnidae found. The caterpillars are quite regularly come across and can vary in colour. A spectacular moth with the males flying during the day attracted to the pheromones given off by the nocturnal females.
Endromidae, Drepanidae and Thyatiridae
Of the 17 British species in these three small families the caterpillar of the Peach Blossom, Thyratira batis, one of 9 members of the Thyatiridea family, is the most likely to be casually sighted. It is a common species and the caterpillar may be seen sitting on top of bramble/raspberry leaves where in its penultimate instar it is protected by its close resemblance to a bird dropping.
The rare and extremely localised Kentish Glory is the only British member of Endromidae and the 6 British members of the Drepanidae family include the Hook-tips and Chinese Character.
Looper caterpillars – family Geometridae
This is a large family of caterpillars with over 300 species. Nearly all of them have several prolegs missing and walk by moving one end of their body at a time so forming a loop – hence they are often referred to as ‘loopers’. The leg count is often a very good way to identify species as Geometrids.
Most ‘loopers’ are superbly camouflaged, their cryptic shape and colour making them very difficult to see amongst their food plant, to the extent that it isn’t until some move that you are even sure they are indeed caterpillars!
The largest caterpillars in the British Isles are members of the Sphingidae family
These are the hawk-moth caterpillars, the largest caterpillars in the British Isles. The largest being the caterpillar of the migrant Death’s Head hawk-moth, reaching 125mm in length.
As well as their size they also have formidable looking tail spurs which are visible even on recently hatched tiny caterpillars.
The Elephant Hawk-moth caterpillar is the most frequently seen Hawkmoth caterpillar in gardens where it feeds on fuchsias and other plants.
Other species of Hawkmoth caterpillar are more likely to be sighted when they leave their larval food plant and wander over the ground in search of a place to pupate in the ground.
Puss moth, Kitten and Prominent caterpillars – Notodontidae family
This family contains some of the most extraordinary looking caterpillars to be found in the British Isles.
The caterpillar of the Puss Moth is startlingly well equipped to scare of predators with its whip like tail extensions. It is also regularly sighted but mainly when it has left its food plant to wander in search of a place to pupate by which time it has turned a purplish colour.
The caterpillars of the Prominent species also have some very distinctively shaped caterpillars; several capable of arching their head and tail upwards to disguise their outline. One of the most commonly found prominent caterpillar is the Pebble Prominent.
Also in the Notodontidae family is the brightly coloured caterpillar of the beautifully camouflaged Buff-tip moth. Gardeners often report large numbers of these brightly yellow caterpillars stripping trees of leaves.
Hairy caterpillars and safety warning – Lymantriidae family
The Lymantriidae family of moth caterpillars which includes the Tussock moths have some of the most extraordinarily looking hairy caterpillars.
Unfortunately some are best known worldwide for their urticating hairs to which some people suffer quite severe skin reactions.
Fortunately in the British Isles there are only a few caterpillars that can at times be considered a health hazard – but, nevertheless, it’s advised that all hairy caterpillars should be treated with caution. The Brown-tail, although not the most common species, is the one we receive the most reports of causing skin rashes with their irritating hairs.
This family also includes the fabulous Vapourer moth caterpillar which is the second most commonly enquired about caterpillar.
The most commonly sighted Tussock caterpillar is the Pale Tussock which is notable for its tail spike which is often a deep red. It is frequently seen wandering out in the open in late summer/early autumn.
The boldly marked orange and black Cinnabar caterpillar is perhaps the most instantly recognised caterpillar in the British Isles being commonly found in numbers on Ragwort.
Tiger, Footman and Ermine caterpillars – family Arctiidae
This family include commonly seen caterpillars of several species of Tiger moth, Footman and Ermines.
The Tiger moth caterpillars are very hairy and frequently seen out in the open. The appropriately named woolly bear caterpillar of the Garden Tiger is the best known.
The hairy Cream-spot Tiger, Ruby Tiger and the brightly coloured Scarlet Tiger caterpillars are more localised but also frequently come across.
Both Buff and White Ermine caterpillars are regularly reported from gardens and the countryside in various instars.
The Footman caterpillars feed on lichens and algae and are less frequently seen. The caterpillars of the Dingy Footman and the larger Four-spotted Footman are two of the most frequently enquired about.
The largest family of macro moths – Noctuidae family
This is the largest family of macro moth caterpillars in the British Isles with over 400 species and with several sub families. Most species have three true legs, four prolegs and a rear clasper.
Many of their caterpillars have smooth skins, few hairs, few distinctive markings and are rarely seen; often living their entire life either in the soil or low down at the base of plants. Some, however, are extraordinarily hairy such as the Miller and Sycamore caterpillars and live in deciduous trees. Others such as the tufted Knot Grass, the brightly coloured Mullein caterpillars and Dark and Grey species of Dagger are amongst the top twenty most enquired about caterpillars.
One of the most extraordinarily caterpillars is that of the Chamomile Shark which despite its large size and streaks of colour blends in making it surprisingly difficult to see amongst its food plant, species of Mayweed.
Nut–tree Tussock caterpillar is the only member of the sub family Pantheinae and despite being a common species is not frequently recorded because it is difficult to see amongst the branches of its food plant.
Noctuid caterpillars with fewer prolegs – Plusinae
Unusually for noctuid caterpillars there are a few that have fewer prolegs than the normal four and a rear clasper. These include those mostly in the Plusinae sub family.
Several both resident and migrant species of Plusinae caterpillar occur in the British Isles.
The caterpillars of the Silver Y, the commonest of the larger migrant moths to the UK, are often referred to as the Cabbage looper in other parts of the world where they are considered a pest. In common with other closely related caterpillars they have two prolegs missing.
Other rarer migrant species such as Slender Burnished Brass and Double Gold Spot may also be imported on agricultural produce.
Commonly found on nettles are the caterpillars of The Snout a member of the sub family Hypeninae. These only have 3 fully formed prolegs and a rear clasper.
Is your caterpillar in the moth picture gallery?
If a caterpillar isn’t found in the moth caterpillar gallery it may be a species belonging to another family of insects and so it’s worth checking to see if it appears in either the butterfly caterpillar picture gallery, sawfly larva picture gallery or other insect larva picture gallery.
Some species are difficult to identify from photographs for a number of reasons – see help with caterpillar identification. You never know it may be one that’s not on the site and with your permission we would welcome adding a photo of it to the site and include it in a latest sightings report.
help with caterpillar identification for more information.