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Rare caterpillars immortalised by movie Silence of the Lambs unearthed in Somerset back garden

Two extremely rare caterpillars which will turn into moths immortalised in the movie Silence of the Lambs have been unearthed in a Somerset back garden.

Emma Giffard dug up two death’s-head hawkmoths whilst tending to potatoes in her garden in Westbury-sub-Mendip, near Cheddar. The insect is so named because of the skull-like pattern on its back.

The caterpillars were found in a potato patch in Emma Gifford's garden. Credit: Emma Giffard

The first caterpillar I dug up was so huge and unusual and I’d never seen anything like it, so I really wanted to know what it was. I tried to ID it but I was completely stumped, so I posted a picture on a wildlife gardening forum and someone said they thought it was a Death’s Head Hawkmoth caterpillar.

I was so excited. I know our insects are in real trouble, so I try to manage the garden to benefit wildlife as much as possible, leaving some of the grass to grow long and not using any pesticides, but I’ve never found anything remotely unusual before.

I reported it to the County Moth Recorder, who said it was a ‘once in a lifetime experience’. So I couldn’t believe my eyes when two days later I went to dig up more potatoes, and the moment I turned the soil there was another one peeking up at me!

– Emma Giffard

The bat-sized moth is rare in Britain - normally being found in southern Europe, Africa and the Middle East. It famously featured on promotional posters for the 1991 horror Silence of the Lambs.

The moths were immortalised on the Silence of the Lambs poster Credit: The Silence of the Lambs

Emma has been witness now to both caterpillars forming their pupae. When the moths emerge, they can be with a wingspan as wide as 13cm (over 5 inches).

Anne Halpin, landscape ecologist at the Somerset Wildlife Trust said:

If they are found they are as extraordinarily rare visitors only and it’s even rarer to find two together. In Somerset there have been only two records since 2000.

It’s incredibly exciting to have found these two in Somerset. We have since learned of a handful of sightings, so we are now thinking about the reasons why they may have made it here.

Possibly on the same warm wind during the unseasonably hot start to the summer that also brought in the unusually large number of Painted Lady butterflies, who have also been spotted recently.

– Anne Halpin, Somerset Wildlife Trust
The caterpillars have both recently begun forming their pupae. Credit: Emma Giffard