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Apantesis phalerata.jpg
Harnessed tiger moth
Apantesis phalerata
Scientific classification OOjs UI icon edit-ltr.svg
Domain: Eukaryota
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Arthropoda
Class: Insecta
Order: Lepidoptera
Superfamily: Noctuoidea
Family: Erebidae
Subfamily: Arctiinae
Leach, 1815
Type species
Arctia caja
1,400–1,500 genera
Approximately 11,000 species

The Arctiinae (formerly called the family Arctiidae) are a large and diverse subfamily of moths with around 11,000 species found all over the world, including 6,000 neotropical species. [1] This subfamily includes the groups commonly known as tiger moths (or tigers), which usually have bright colours, footmen, which are usually much drabber, lichen moths, and wasp moths. Many species have "hairy" caterpillars that are popularly known as woolly bears or woolly worms. The scientific name Arctiinae refers to this hairiness (Gk. αρκτος = a bear). Some species within the Arctiinae have the word "tussock"' in their common names because they have been misidentified as members of the Lymantriinae subfamily based on the characteristics of the larvae.



The subfamily was previously classified as the family Arctiidae of the superfamily Noctuoidea and is a monophyletic group. [2] Recent phylogenetic studies have shown that the group is most closely related to litter moths Herminiinae and the Old World Aganainae, which are subfamilies of the family Erebidae. [3] The Arctiidae as a whole have been reclassified to represent this relationship. The family was lowered to subfamily status as the Arctiinae within the Erebidae. The subfamilies and tribes of Arctiidae were lowered to tribes and subtribes, respectively, of this new Arctiinae to preserve the internal structure of the group. [4]

Changes in taxon ranks and names are due to the classification of the former Arctiidae as the current Arctiinae.
Taxon rankFormer classificationCurrent classification
Superfamily Noctuoidea Noctuoidea
FamilyArctiidae Erebidae
SubfamilyArctiinae, Lithosiinae, Syntominae Arctiinae
Tribe Arctiini, Ctenuchini, Eudesmiini, Lithosiini, etc. Arctiini, Lithosiini, Syntomini
Subtribe Arctiina, Ctenuchina, Eudesmiina, Lithosiina, etc.
GenusMany generaNames and rank not changed
SpeciesMany speciesNames and rank not changed
Taxa of the same background color represent the same group of species before and after its lowering of taxonomic rank, despite the change of suffixes.

Tribes (former subfamilies)

Many genera are classified into these tribes, while others remain unclassified (incertae sedis).


The most distinctive feature of the subfamily is a tymbal organ on the metathorax. [1] This organ has membranes that are vibrated to produce ultrasonic sounds. They also have thoracic tympanal organs for hearing, a trait with a fairly broad distribution in the Lepidoptera, but the location and structure is distinctive to the subfamily. Other distinctive traits are particular setae (hairs) on the larvae, wing venation, and a pair of glands near the ovipositor. [1] The sounds are used in mating [5] and for defense against predators. [6] Another good distinguishing character of the subfamily is presence of anal glands in females. [7]


Banded woolly bear, Pyrrharctia isabella Woolly-Bear-Caterpillar.jpg
Banded woolly bear, Pyrrharctia isabella

Many species retain distasteful or poisonous chemicals acquired from their host plants. [8] Some species also have the ability to make their own defenses. [9] Common defenses include cardiac glycosides (or cardenolides), pyrrolizidine alkaloids, pyrazines, and histamines. [8] Larvae usually acquire these chemicals, and may retain them in the adult stage, but adults can acquire them, too, by regurgitating decomposing plants containing the compounds and sucking up the fluid. [8] Adults can transfer the defenses to their eggs, and males sometimes transfer them to females to help with defense of the eggs. Larval "hairs" may be stinging in some species, due to histamines their caterpillars make.

The insects advertise these defenses with aposematic bright coloration, unusual postures, odours, or in adults, ultrasonic vibrations. Some mimic moths that are poisonous or wasps that sting. [10] The ultrasound signals help nocturnal predators to learn to avoid the moths, [11] [12] and for some species can jam bat echolocation.

Behavior and life cycle

Copulation in tiger moth Copulation in tiger moth.jpg
Copulation in tiger moth

Many of the caterpillars and adults are active during the daytime, but most species of this taxon are night-flying. Moths are attracted by light, but one species, Borearctia menetriesii, never comes to the light. Basking to accelerate digestion is common in the larval stages, and social behaviour may range from solitary to gregarious. Like most Lepidoptera, larvae produce a small silk pad before each moult, in which their prolegs are engaged.

If disturbed, woolly bear caterpillars roll into a tight spiral or drop from their perch suspended by a strand of silk. Isabella tiger moths ( Pyrrharctia isabella ) overwinter in the caterpillar stage. They can survive freezing at moderate subzero temperatures by producing a cryoprotectant chemical. [13] The larvae of another species, Phragmatobia fuliginosa, may be found on snow seeking a place to pupate. Species in Arctic and temperate belts overwinter in the larval stage.

Some tiger moths produce ultrasonic clicks in response to the echolocation of bats to protect themselves.

Many species are polyphagous in the larval stage. Monophagous species, such as the cinnabar moth (Tyria jacobaeae), are scarce.

Although abundant, few species in this subfamily are of economic importance. Even the fall webworm, an abundant and highly polyphagous tree-feeding species that has spread from North America to Asia and Europe, does not do lasting damage to healthy hosts.

Tiger moth laying eggs Tiger moth laying eggs.jpg
Tiger moth laying eggs


Caterpillar on Asteraceae plant Arctiidae caterpillar edit.jpg
Caterpillar on Asteraceae plant

Local folklore of the American Northeast and South hold that "woolly bears" (or "woolly worms" in the South) help humans predict the weather, similar to the groundhog. The forthcoming severity of a winter may be indicated by the amount of black on the Isabella tiger moth's caterpillar—the most familiar woolly bear in North America. More brown than black is said to mean a mild winter, while more black than brown is supposed to mean a harsh winter. [14] However, the relative width of the black band varies among instars, not according to weather. [15] The mythical qualities attributed to woolly bears in America have led to such things as the Woollybear Festival in Ohio, the Woolly Worm Festival in Beattyville, Kentucky and the Woolly Worm Festival in Banner Elk, North Carolina.

Notable species

See also

Related Research Articles

Woolly bear may refer to:

<i>Pyrrharctia isabella</i> Species of insect

Pyrrharctia isabella, the Isabella tiger moth, whose larval form is called the banded woolly bear, woolly bear, or woolly worm, occurs in the United States and southern Canada. It was first formally named by James Edward Smith in 1797.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Arctiini</span> Tribe of moths

The Arctiini are a tribe of tiger moths in the family Erebidae.

<i>Spilosoma virginica</i> Species of moth

Spilosoma virginica is a species of moth in the subfamily Arctiinae. As a caterpillar, it is known as the yellow woolly bear or yellow bear caterpillar. As an adult, it is known as the Virginian tiger moth.

<i>Cycnia tenera</i> Species of moth

Cycnia tenera, the dogbane tiger moth or delicate cycnia, is a moth in the family Erebidae. It occurs throughout North America, from southern British Columbia to Nova Scotia southwards to Arizona and Florida. The species is distasteful and there is evidence that it emits aposematic ultrasound signals; these may also jam bat echolocation, as the functions are not mutually exclusive.

<i>Euchaetes egle</i> Species of moth

Euchaetes egle, the milkweed tiger moth or milkweed tussock moth, is a moth in the family Erebidae and the tribe Arctiini, the tiger moths. The species was first described by Dru Drury in 1773. It is a common mid- through late summer feeder on milkweeds and dogbane. Like most species in this family, it has chemical defenses it acquires from its host plants, in this case, cardiac glycosides. These are retained in adults and deter bats, and presumably other predators, from feeding on them. Only very high cardiac glycoside concentrations deterred bats as predators. Adults indicate their unpalatability to bats with ultrasonic clicks from their tymbal organs.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Phaegopterina</span> Subtribe of moths

The Phaegopterina are a subtribe of tiger moths in the tribe Arctiini, which is part of the family Erebidae. The subtribe was described by William Forsell Kirby in 1892. 469 species of Phaegopterina are present and 52 that are recently discovered in Brazil.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Callimorphina</span> Subtribe of moths

The Callimorphina are a subtribe of woolly bear moths in the family Erebidae. The subtribe was described by Francis Walker in 1865. Many of these moths are easily confused with butterflies, being quite brightly colored and somewhat diurnal. Their antennae are not thickened into "clubs", which is a typical characteristic of butterflies.

<i>Aethalida</i> Genus of moths

Aethalida is a genus of tiger moths in the family Erebidae that occur in the Sundaland and Philippines.

<i>Amerila</i> Genus of moths

Amerila is a genus of moths in the subfamily Arctiinae. A number of species in this genus have a special defence mechanism when they are in their adult stage. When disturbed, they exude a frothy yellow fluid from glands beside the eyes, while making a sizzling noise to ward off their attacker. Similar behaviour has been observed in fertilised females of the North-American moth Utetheisa ornatrix.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Aganainae</span> Subfamily of moths

The Aganainae are a small subfamily of moths in the family Erebidae. The adults and caterpillars of this subfamily are typically large and brightly colored, like the related tiger moths. Many of the caterpillars feed on poisonous host plants and acquire toxic cardenolides that make them unpleasant to predators. Like the closely related litter moths, the adults have long, upturned labial palps, and the caterpillars have fully or mostly developed prolegs on the abdomen. The Aganainae are distributed across the tropics and subtropics of the Old World.

<i>Lyclene</i> Genus of moths

Lyclene is a genus of lichen moths of the family Erebidae, subfamily Arctiinae. The genus was erected by Frederic Moore in 1860.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Erebidae</span> Family of moths

The Erebidae are a family of moths in the superfamily Noctuoidea. The family is among the largest families of moths by species count and contains a wide variety of well-known macromoth groups. The family includes the underwings (Catocala); litter moths (Herminiinae); tiger, lichen, and wasp moths (Arctiinae); tussock moths (Lymantriinae), including the arctic woolly bear moth ; piercing moths ; micronoctuoid moths (Micronoctuini); snout moths (Hypeninae); and zales, though many of these common names can also refer to moths outside the Erebidae. Some of the erebid moths are called owlets.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Nyctemerina</span> Subtribe of moths

The Nyctemerina are a subtribe of woolly bear moths in the family Erebidae.

Eyralpenus meinhofi is a polymorphic tiger-moth in the family Erebidae first described by Max Bartel in 1903. It is known from the east and central Africa: Tanzania, Zambia, Zambia, Angola, Zaire ; Malawi ; Zaire ; Zimbabwe.

<i>Juxtarctia multiguttata</i> Species of moth

Juxtarctia multiguttata is a polymorphic tiger-moth in the subfamily Arctiinae, endemic for Himalayas. It is known from India: north-west Himalayas, Sikkim, Assam; Nepal; Bhutan; Myanmar; China: Tibet within western slopes of the Himalayas; Indochina.

Amerila eugenia is a moth of the subfamily Arctiinae. It was described by Johan Christian Fabricius in 1794. It is found in China, Pakistan (Karachi), central and southern India and Sri-Lanka.

Arctia olschwangi is a moth of the family Erebidae. It was described by Vladimir Viktorovitch Dubatolov in 1990. It is found in the polar Ural, Yamal Peninsula, Yakutia, Lena River delta.

Argyarctia sericeipennis is a moth of the family Erebidae. It was described by Rothschild in 1933. It is found in China (Yunnan).

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Vladimir Viktorovich Dubatolov</span> Russian entomologist

Vladimir Viktorovich Dubatolov is a Russian entomologist, lepidopterist, Doctor of Biological Sciences, full member of the Russian Entomological Society, member of the European Lepidopterological Society, curator of the insect collection of the Siberian Zoological Museum, leading researcher at the Institute of Systematics and Ecology of Animals SB RAS (Novosibirsk), leading researcher of the Federal State Budgetary Institution "Zapovednoye Priamurye" (Khabarovsk).


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  15. Wagner, DL. (2005). Caterpillars of Eastern North America. Princeton University Press.

Other references

Main species catalogs

Phylogenetic analyses

Distribution analyses

Further reading