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Attacus atlas (15050883139).jpg
Atlas moth, Attacus atlas
Scientific classification OOjs UI icon edit-ltr.svg
Domain: Eukaryota
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Arthropoda
Class: Insecta
Order: Lepidoptera
(unranked): Heterocera

Moths are a group of insects that includes all members of the order Lepidoptera that are not butterflies. [1] They were previously classified as suborder Heterocera, but the group is paraphyletic with respect to butterflies (suborder Rhopalocera) and neither subordinate taxa are used in modern classifications. Moths make up the vast majority of the order. There are thought to be approximately 160,000 species of moth, [2] many of which have yet to be described. Most species of moth are nocturnal, although there are also crepuscular and diurnal species.


Differences between butterflies and moths

Basic moth identification features Basic moth identification features.jpg
Basic moth identification features

While the butterflies form a monophyletic group, the moths, comprising the rest of the Lepidoptera, do not. Many attempts have been made to group the superfamilies of the Lepidoptera into natural groups, most of which fail because one of the two groups is not monophyletic: Microlepidoptera and Macrolepidoptera, Heterocera and Rhopalocera, Jugatae and Frenatae, Monotrysia and Ditrysia. [3]

Although the rules for distinguishing moths from butterflies are not well established, one very good guiding principle is that butterflies have thin antennae and (with the exception of the family Hedylidae) have small balls or clubs at the end of their antennae. Moth antennae are usually feathery with no ball on the end. The divisions are named by this principle: "club-antennae" (Rhopalocera) or "varied-antennae" (Heterocera). Lepidoptera first evolved during the Carboniferous period, but only evolved their characteristic proboscis alongside the rise of angiosperms in the Cretaceous period. [4]


The modern English word moth comes from Old English moððe (cf. Northumbrian mohðe) from Common Germanic (compare Old Norse motti, Dutch mot, and German Motte all meaning 'moth'). Its origins are possibly related to the Old English maða meaning 'maggot' or from the root of midge which until the 16th century was used mostly to indicate the larva, usually in reference to devouring clothes.


Poplar hawk-moth caterpillar (Laothoe populi) Poplar hawk-moth.jpg
Poplar hawk-moth caterpillar (Laothoe populi)

Moth larvae, or caterpillars, make cocoons from which they emerge as fully grown moths with wings. Some moth caterpillars dig holes in the ground, where they live until they are ready to turn into adult moths. [5]


Moths evolved long before butterflies; moth fossils have been found that may be 190 million years old. Both types of Lepidoptera are thought to have co-evolved with flowering plants, mainly because most modern species, both as adults and larvae, feed on flowering plants. One of the earliest known species that is thought to be an ancestor of moths is Archaeolepis mane. Its fossil fragments show scaled wings that are similar to caddisflies in their veining. [6]


Significance to humans

An adult male pine processionary moth (Thaumetopoea pityocampa). This species is a serious forest pest when in its larval state. Notice the bristle springing from the underside of the hindwing (frenulum) and running forward to be held in a small catch of the forewing, whose function is to link the wings together. Moth September 2008-3.jpg
An adult male pine processionary moth ( Thaumetopoea pityocampa ). This species is a serious forest pest when in its larval state. Notice the bristle springing from the underside of the hindwing (frenulum) and running forward to be held in a small catch of the forewing, whose function is to link the wings together.

Some moths, particularly their caterpillars, can be major agricultural pests in many parts of the world. Examples include corn borers and bollworms. [7] The caterpillar of the spongy moth (Lymantria dispar) causes severe damage to forests in the northeastern United States, where it is an invasive species. In temperate climates, the codling moth causes extensive damage, especially to fruit farms. In tropical and subtropical climates, the diamondback moth ( Plutella xylostella ) is perhaps the most serious pest of brassicaceous crops. Also in sub-Saharan Africa, the African sugarcane borer is a major pest of sugarcane, maize, and sorghum. [8]

Several moths in the family Tineidae are commonly regarded as pests because their larvae eat fabric such as clothes and blankets made from natural proteinaceous fibers such as wool or silk. [9] They are less likely to eat mixed materials containing some artificial fibers. There are some reports that they may be repelled by the scent of wood from juniper and cedar, by lavender, or by other natural oils; however, many consider this unlikely to prevent infestation. Naphthalene (the chemical used in mothballs) is considered more effective, but there are concerns over its effects on human health.

Moth larvae may be killed by freezing the items which they infest for several days at a temperature below −8 °C (18 °F). [10]

While moths are notorious for eating clothing, most species do not, and some moth adults do not even eat at all. Some, like the Luna, Polyphemus, Atlas, Promethea, cecropia, and other large moths do not have mouth parts. This is possible because they live off the food stores from when they were a caterpillar, and only live a short time as an adult (roughly a week for some species). [11] Many species of adult moths do however eat: for instance, many will drink nectar. [9]

Some moths are farmed for their economic value. The most notable of these is the silkworm, the larva of the domesticated moth Bombyx mori . It is farmed for the silk with which it builds its cocoon. As of 2002, the silk industry produces more than 130 million kilograms of raw silk, worth about 250 million U.S. dollars, each year. [12] [13] [14]

Not all silk is produced by Bombyx mori. There are several species of Saturniidae that also are farmed for their silk, such as the ailanthus moth ( Samia cynthia group of species), the Chinese oak silkmoth ( Antheraea pernyi ), the Assam silkmoth ( Antheraea assamensis ), and the Japanese silk moth ( Antheraea yamamai ).

The larvae of many species are used as food, particularly in Africa, where they are an important source of nutrition. The mopane worm, the caterpillar of Gonimbrasia belina , from the family Saturniidae, is a significant food resource in southern Africa. Another saturniid used as food is the cavorting emperor ( Usta terpsichore ). In one country alone, Congo, more than 30 species of moth larvae are harvested. Some are sold not only in the local village markets, but are shipped by the ton from one country to another. [15]

Predators and parasites

Tobacco hornworm parasitized by braconid wasps Tomato Hornworm Parasitized by Braconid Wasp.jpg
Tobacco hornworm parasitized by braconid wasps

Nocturnal insectivores often feed on moths; these include some bats, some species of owls and other species of birds. Moths also are eaten by some species of lizards, amphibians, cats, dogs, rodents, and some bears. Moth larvae are vulnerable to being parasitized by Ichneumonidae.

Baculoviruses are parasite double-stranded DNA insect viruses that are used mostly as biological control agents. They are members of the Baculoviridae, a family that is restricted to insects. Most baculovirus isolates have been obtained from insects, in particular from Lepidoptera.

There is evidence that ultrasound in the range emitted by bats causes flying moths to make evasive maneuvers. Ultrasonic frequencies trigger a reflex action in the noctuid moth that causes it to drop a few centimeters or inches in its flight to evade attack, [16] and tiger moths can emit clicks to foil bats' echolocation. [17] [18]

The fungus Ophiocordyceps sinensis infects the larvae of many different species of moths. [19]

Ecological importance

Moths, like butterflies, bees and other more popularly recognized pollinating insects, serve an essential role as pollinators for many flowering plants, including species that bees do not visit. Nocturnal moths fly from flower to flower to feed on nectar during the night much as their diurnal relatives do during the day. A study conducted in the UK found moths dusted with pollen from 47 different plant species, including seven species largely ignored by bees. [20] Some studies indicate that certain species of moths, such as those belonging to the families Erebidae and Sphingidae, may be the key pollinators for some flowering plants in the Himalayan ecosystem. [21] [22] The roles of moths as pollinators have been studied less frequently than those of diurnal pollinators, but recent studies have established that moths are important, but often overlooked, nocturnal pollinators of a wide range of plants. [23] [24] [25] [26] Some researchers say it is likely that many plants thought to be dependent on bees for pollination also rely on moths, which have historically been less observed because they pollinate mainly at night. [27]

Attraction to light

Assorted moths in the University of Texas Insect Collection Assorted Moths (Lepidoptera) in the University of Texas Insect Collection (22281153644) (cropped).jpg
Assorted moths in the University of Texas Insect Collection

Moths frequently appear to circle artificial lights, although the reason for this behavior (positive phototaxis) is currently unknown. One hypothesis is called celestial or transverse orientation. By maintaining a constant angular relationship to a bright celestial light, such as the moon, they can fly in a straight line. Celestial objects are so far away that, even after travelling great distances, the change in angle between the moth and the light source is negligible; further, the moon will always be in the upper part of the visual field, or on the horizon. When a moth encounters a much closer artificial light and uses it for navigation, the angle changes noticeably after only a short distance, in addition to being often below the horizon. The moth instinctively attempts to correct by turning toward the light, thereby causing airborne moths to come plummeting downward, and resulting in a spiral flight path that gets closer and closer to the light source. [28]

Studies have found that light pollution caused by increasing use of artificial lights has either led to a severe decline in moth population in some parts of the world [29] [30] [31] or has severely disrupted nocturnal pollination. [32] [33]

Noteworthy moths

Moths of economic significance

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Caterpillar</span> Larva of a butterfly or moth

Caterpillars are the larval stage of members of the order Lepidoptera.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Butterfly</span> Group of insects in the order Lepidoptera

Butterflies (Rhopalocera) are lepidopteran insects that have large, often brightly coloured wings, and a conspicuous, fluttering flight. The group comprises the superfamilies Hedyloidea and Papilionoidea. The oldest butterfly fossils have been dated to the Paleocene, about 56 million years ago, though they may have originated earlier.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Lepidoptera</span> Order of insects including moths and butterflies

Lepidoptera is an order of insects that includes butterflies and moths. About 180,000 species of the Lepidoptera are described, in 126 families and 46 superfamilies, 10 percent of the total described species of living organisms. It is one of the most widespread and widely recognizable insect orders in the world. The Lepidoptera show many variations of the basic body structure that have evolved to gain advantages in lifestyle and distribution. Recent estimates suggest the order may have more species than earlier thought, and is among the four most species-rich orders, along with the Hymenoptera, Diptera, and Coleoptera.

A common classification of the Lepidoptera involves their differentiation into butterflies and moths. Butterflies are a natural monophyletic group, often given the suborder Rhopalocera, which includes Papilionoidea, Hesperiidae (skippers), and Hedylidae. In this taxonomic scheme, moths belong to the suborder Heterocera. Other taxonomic schemes have been proposed, the most common putting the butterflies into the suborder Ditrysia and then the "superfamily" Papilionoidea and ignoring a classification for moths.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Sphingidae</span> Family of insects

The Sphingidae are a family of moths (Lepidoptera) called sphinx moths, also colloquially known as hawk moths, with many of their caterpillars known as “hornworms”; it includes about 1,450 species. It is best represented in the tropics, but species are found in every region. They are moderate to large in size and are distinguished among moths for their agile and sustained flying ability, similar enough to that of hummingbirds as to be reliably mistaken for them. Their narrow wings and streamlined abdomens are adaptations for rapid flight. The family was named by French zoologist Pierre André Latreille in 1802.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Noctuidae</span> Type of moths commonly known as owlet moths, cutworms or armyworms

The Noctuidae, commonly known as owlet moths, cutworms or armyworms, are a family of moths. They are considered the most controversial family in the superfamily Noctuoidea because many of the clades are constantly changing, along with the other families of the Noctuoidea. It was considered the largest family in Lepidoptera for a long time, but after regrouping Lymantriinae, Catocalinae and Calpinae within the family Erebidae, the latter holds this title now. Currently, Noctuidae is the second largest family in Noctuoidea, with about 1,089 genera and 11,772 species. This classification is still contingent, as more changes continue to appear between Noctuidae and Erebidae.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Luna moth</span> Species of insect

The luna moth, also called the American moon moth, is a Nearctic moth in the family Saturniidae, subfamily Saturniinae, a group commonly named the giant silk moths.

<i>Helicoverpa zea</i> Species of moth

Helicoverpa zea, commonly known as the corn earworm, is a species in the family Noctuidae. The larva of the moth Helicoverpa zea is a major agricultural pest. Since it is polyphagous during the larval stage, the species has been given many different common names, including the cotton bollworm and the tomato fruitworm. It also consumes a wide variety of other crops.

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

Saturniidae, members of which are commonly named the saturniids, is a family of Lepidoptera with an estimated 2,300 described species. The family contains some of the largest species of moths in the world. Notable members include the emperor moths, royal moths, and giant silk moths.

<i>Manduca quinquemaculata</i> Species of moth

Manduca quinquemaculata, the five-spotted hawkmoth, is a brown and gray hawk moth of the family Sphingidae. The caterpillar, often referred to as the tomato hornworm, can be a major pest in gardens; they get their name from a dark projection on their posterior end and their use of tomatoes as host plants. Tomato hornworms are closely related to the tobacco hornworm Manduca sexta. This confusion arises because caterpillars of both species have similar morphologies and feed on the foliage of various plants from the family Solanaceae, so either species can be found on tobacco or tomato leaves. Because of this, the plant on which the caterpillar is found does not indicate its species.

<i>Antheraea polyphemus</i> Species of moth

Antheraea polyphemus, the Polyphemus moth, is a North American member of the family Saturniidae, the giant silk moths. It is a tan-colored moth, with an average wingspan of 15 cm (6 in). The most notable feature of the moth is its large, purplish eyespots on its two hindwings. The eyespots give it its name – from the Greek myth of the cyclops Polyphemus. The species was first described by Pieter Cramer in 1776. The species is widespread in continental North America, with local populations found throughout subarctic Canada and the United States. The caterpillar can eat 86,000 times its weight at emergence in a little less than two months. Polyphemus moths are considered to be very polyphagous, meaning they eat from a wide variety of plants

<i>Dryocampa rubicunda</i> Species of moth

Dryocampa rubicunda, the rosy maple moth, is a small North American moth in the family Saturniidae, also known as the great silk moths. It was first described by Johan Christian Fabricius in 1793. The species is known for its wooly body and pink and yellow coloration, which varies from cream or white to bright pink or yellow. Males have bushier antennae than females, which allow them to sense female pheromones for mating.

<i>Agrotis ipsilon</i> Species of moth

Agrotis ipsilon, the dark sword-grass, black cutworm, greasy cutworm, floodplain cutworm or ipsilon dart, is a small noctuid moth found worldwide. The moth gets its scientific name from black markings on its forewings shaped like the letter "Y" or the Greek letter upsilon. The larvae are known as "cutworms" because they cut plants and other crops. The larvae are serious agricultural pests and feed on nearly all varieties of vegetables and many important grains.

<i>Epargyreus clarus</i> Species of butterfly

Epargyreus clarus, the silver-spotted skipper, is a butterfly of the family Hesperiidae. It is claimed to be the most recognized skipper in North America. E. clarus occurs in fields, gardens, and at forest edges and ranges from southern Canada throughout most of the United States to northern Mexico, but is absent in the Great Basin and western Texas.

<i>Eriogaster lanestris</i> Species of moth

Eriogaster lanestris, commonly known as the small eggar, is a moth of the family Lasiocampidae that is found across the Palearctic. Unlike many other members of the Lasiocampidae, the small eggar is a social insect. Historically, only eusocial insects like ants, bees, and termites were thought to exhibit complex social organization and communication systems. However, research since the late 20th century has found that E. lanestris, among a number of other phylogenetically related moth and butterfly species, demonstrates social behaviors as well. Larvae spend nearly their entire development in colonies of about 200 individuals, and this grouped social structure offers a number of benefits, from thermoregulation to increased foraging success.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Wild silk</span>

Wild silks have been known and used in many countries from early times, although the scale of production is far smaller than that from cultivated silkworms. Silk cocoons and nests often resemble paper or cloth, and their use has arisen independently in many societies.

<i>Diphthera festiva</i> Species of moth

Diphthera festiva, the hieroglyphic moth, is a species of moth in the family Nolidae and is the only moth in its subfamily Diphtherinae. It is found in the tropical and subtropical areas of South America, Central America, North America, and the Caribbean. In North America, the species has a southeastern distribution from South Carolina west to Texas along the Gulf Coast. Strays have been recorded as far north as Michigan and Missouri. The wingspan is 37–48 mm (1.5–1.9 in). This species is occasionally considered a pest on soybeans. It was described by Johan Christian Fabricius in 1775.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Insect</span> Class of arthropods

Insects are pancrustacean hexapod invertebrates of the class Insecta. They are the largest group within the arthropod phylum. Insects have a chitinous exoskeleton, a three-part body, three pairs of jointed legs, compound eyes and one pair of antennae. Their blood is not totally contained in vessels; some circulates in an open cavity known as the haemocoel. Insects are the most diverse group of animals; they include more than a million described species and represent more than half of all known living organisms. The total number of extant species is estimated at between six and ten million; potentially over 90% of the animal life forms on Earth are insects. Insects may be found in nearly all environments, although only a small number of species reside in the oceans, which are dominated by another arthropod group, crustaceans, which recent research has indicated insects are nested within.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">External morphology of Lepidoptera</span> External features of butterflies and moths

The external morphology of Lepidoptera is the physiological structure of the bodies of insects belonging to the order Lepidoptera, also known as butterflies and moths. Lepidoptera are distinguished from other orders by the presence of scales on the external parts of the body and appendages, especially the wings. Butterflies and moths vary in size from microlepidoptera only a few millimetres long, to a wingspan of many inches such as the Atlas moth. Comprising over 160,000 described species, the Lepidoptera possess variations of the basic body structure which has evolved to gain advantages in adaptation and distribution.

<i>Antheraea pernyi</i> Species of moth

Antheraea pernyi, the Chinese (oak) tussar moth, Chinese tasar moth or temperate tussar moth, is a large moth in the family Saturniidae. The species was first described by Félix Édouard Guérin-Méneville in 1855. Antheraea roylei is an extremely close relative, and the present species might actually have evolved from ancestral A. roylei by chromosome rearrangement.


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