Eumorpha pandorus is an animal with a split personality.

I should not, however, blame the beast; it is humans that have caused this confused condition. Eumorpha is a victim of numerous names, each with its own character and history.

Eumorpha pandorus is commonly called the Pandora or Pandorus sphinx moth, although the two are distinctly different mythological beings. 

We all know Pandora, whose curiosity led to the release of the world’s evils. Fortunately for us, also liberated from the box was perhaps the only antidote to the ills that had escaped: hope. Pandora understood deeply the power of hope when she said, “Hope is what makes us strong. It is why we are here. It is what we fight with when all else is lost.” Pandorus was not so well known nor so eloquent. He was an accomplished archer who fought in the battle of Troy described in Homer’s Iliad. He had his own cross(bow) to bear, since archers were thought to be inferior soldiers compared to the more respected swordsmen. Perhaps his insecurity is why he broke a truce by firing an arrow and inciting the opposing troops. After indulging in such rash behavior (as Pandora did), he didn’t last long.

While both of these stories are intriguing, neither explains the naming of a unique insect that is more real than either of its fabled forbearers.

A Pandorus or Pandora (choose your favorite mythological figure) sphinx moth caterpillar was innocently crawling along the ground when it was found last weekend. Hard to miss, this large caterpillar is the width of my thumb and at least three inches long. This crawling monster can vary in color: light or dark brown, black, and green colorations are possible.

Its five white eyespots garner great attention, likely drawing a hungry predator away from its sensitive head and tail sections. It will also rear up its first two sections to appear as imposing as its other namesake — the sphinx.

This particular individual will not be a caterpillar for much longer. In early instars (or stages), this caterpillar maintains a large horn on the tail. As it develops, the horn disappears and is replaced by another of those white eyespots on its tail end. After the final instar, the caterpillar drops into the soil and pupates below ground. The caterpillar found last weekend lacked the horn, sporting the eyespot instead, so it was an older caterpillar ready to go below. But before it goes into the ground it must eat. These caterpillars are picky, relying only on grape, peppervine and Virginia creeper leaves for nourishment.

The sphinx moth that emerges from its underground respite is wondrous. Appearing at dusk, it is a large (up to four and a half inches) green-gray moth with black patches and pink edges. With those colorations, it isn’t surprising that it is also called a camouflage moth. These moths generally fly throughout the summer and will lay their eggs one at a time on their select host plants allowing the resulting caterpillars just enough time to forage in the fall before overwintering underground, as the one in this recent chance meeting was.

The riddle of this sphinx moth is whether it ever did anything as reckless as its namesakes to earn its reputation. No matter what its offense, these caterpillars definitely embody the hope and determination shown by Pandora and Pandorus, qualities that will see these creatures (and us) through the coming season of cold and hardship.

Suzann Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.