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All the damage occurred over the course of one sunny day while I was at work, several pepper plants and young tomato plants defoliated severely. I suspect rabbits as I've seen some around and I haven't seen any worms, but my friend isn't convinced. Are there any insects that could cause this much damage in a single day?

Edit: Also, are there any indicators this ISN'T rabbit damage?

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    If you could post some closeup pictures covering the bites. Maybe there are signs that could be interpreted. – Ariser - reinstate Monica Sep 13 '19 at 8:57
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    I typically blame rabbits. – Evil Elf Sep 13 '19 at 11:56
  • What is your location? Rabbits could be almost anywhere, whilst horn worms are in North America (Europe probably has something similar though!) – winwaed Sep 13 '19 at 14:26
  • @winwaed North America, Southern California specifically – engil Sep 13 '19 at 15:04
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Here is an answer that supports rabbits. Really this could be resolved by poo evidence; while it is possible for rabbits to have constipation and leave no calling cards (round pellets the size of large peas) hornworms are never constipated and will leave copious amounts of frass - cubic looking chunks the size of a peppercorn. Here in Ontario the frass from tomato through a hornworm is very dark brown, I encountered 10 so far this year. The hornworm will chew into quite tough fibrous fruiting stems with great ease.

Clearly the damage was severe and happened within a short time frame. This argues for a larger creature. Hornworms can get quite big but need a place to hang out under much larger leaves than on these plants. Also it would be more likely for a rabbit to hop into a pot to reach the foliage and quickly do damage - a small hornworm would be much slower.

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Tomato hornworms can grow very fast, and thus they eat a LOT. And they prefer tomatoes. They have very good camouflage and look like this. They are called hornworms because they have a little "horn" on the back end. When fully grown they can easily reach 3-4" long. This search will show you what their waste looks like. It can be single disconnected "pebbles" or neat bunches. They do turn into nice butterflies though.

To find evidence of them, look for small dark green pellets on the leaves or ground, then look straight up to see if the caterpillar is still there.

You can inspect the plants every morning at sunrise to try and find them, then pick them off and throw them in a bucket of soapy water.

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  • Yes a hornworm can defoliate an adult pepper plant (and I assume tomato) in a day. The full size ones are surprisingly good at hiding in the foliage, and you have to look closely to see the young ones. They're a moth caterpillar. – winwaed Sep 13 '19 at 14:25
  • I've had hornworms before so it's not out of the question - I guess what throws me is that 1) All of the plants were healthy in the morning and all of them were eaten down in a single day (did the hornworms coordinate or was it simply one super ravenous one that hopped between pots) and 2) the damage is beyond just the leaves - the stems look somewhat cropped – engil Sep 13 '19 at 15:07
  • I'd vote that it was probably a single hornworm. because you have (had, sorry) small plants. Caterpillars are surprisingly voracious - I had a single Monarch caterpillar defoliate THREE 2-foot tall Purple Milkweed in a single day. Also, I have never, in 50 years of vegetable gardening, had a rabbit eat anything in the Solanum family. I don't believe they like them. – Jurp Sep 13 '19 at 22:48

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