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Opodiphthera eucalypti male.jpg
Emperor gum moth, Opodiphthera eucalypti
Scientific classification Red Pencil Icon.png
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Arthropoda
Class: Insecta
Order: Lepidoptera
(unranked): Heterocera

Moths are a paraphyletic group of insects that includes all members of the order Lepidoptera that are not butterflies, with moths making up the vast majority of the order. There are thought to be approximately 160,000 species of moth, [1] many of which have yet to be described. Most species of moth are nocturnal, but 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. [2]

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 differs between butterflies and other organisms due to evolving a special characteristic of having the tube-like proboscis in the Middle Triassic which allowed them to acquire nectar from flowering plants. [3]


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. [4]


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. [5]

Moth from Kerala, India Moth kerala.jpg
Moth from Kerala, India


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. [6] The caterpillar of the gypsy 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. [7]

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. [8] 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). [9]

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). [10] Many species of adult moths do however eat: for instance, many will drink nectar. [8]

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. [11] [12] [13]

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. [14]

Predators and parasites

Tomato hornworm parasitized by braconid wasps Tomato Hornworm Parasitized by Braconid Wasp.jpg
Tomato 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, [15] and tiger moths can emit clicks to foil bats' echolocation. [16] [17]

The fungus Ophiocordyceps sinensis infects the larvae of many different species of moths. [18]

Ecological importance

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. [19] [20] A UK study published by The Royal Society in 2020 established that moths are important nocturnal pollinators of a wide range of plants. [21] [22]

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. [23]

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 [24] [25] [26] or has severely disrupted nocturnal pollination. [27] [28]

Noteworthy moths

Moths of economic significance

See also

Related Research Articles

Caterpillar Larva of a butterfly or moth

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

Butterfly A group of insects in the order Lepidoptera

Butterflies are insects in the macrolepidopteran clade Rhopalocera from the order Lepidoptera, which also includes moths. Adult butterflies have large, often brightly coloured wings, and conspicuous, fluttering flight. The group comprises the large superfamily Papilionoidea, which contains at least one former group, the skippers, and the most recent analyses suggest it also contains the moth-butterflies. Butterfly fossils date to the Paleocene, about 56 million years ago.

Lepidoptera 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 speciose 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.

<i>Bombyx mori</i> Moth mainly used in the production of silk

Bombyx mori, the domestic silk moth, is an insect from the moth family Bombycidae. It is the closest relative of Bombyx mandarina, the wild silk moth. The silkworm is the larva or caterpillar of a silk moth. It is an economically important insect, being a primary producer of silk. A silkworm's preferred food are white mulberry leaves, though they may eat other mulberry species and even the osage orange. Domestic silk moths are entirely dependent on humans for reproduction, as a result of millennia of selective breeding. Wild silk moths are not as commercially viable in the production of silk.

Sphingidae 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.

Luna moth Species of insect

The Luna moth is a Nearctic moth in the family Saturniidae, subfamily Saturniinae, a group commonly known as giant silk moths. It has lime-green colored wings and a white body. The larvae (caterpillars) are also green. Typically, it has a wingspan of roughly 114 mm (4.5 in), but can exceed 178 mm (7.0 in), making it one of the larger moths in North America. Across Canada, it has one generation per year, with the winged adults appearing in late May or early June, whereas farther south it will have two or even three generations per year, the first appearance as early as March in southern parts of the United States.

Tachinidae Family of insects

The Tachinidae are a large and variable family of true flies within the insect order Diptera, with more than 8,200 known species and many more to be discovered. Over 1300 species have been described in North America alone. Insects in this family commonly are called tachinid flies or simply tachinids. As far as is known, they all are protelean parasitoids, or occasionally parasites, of arthropods, usually other insects. The family is known from many habitats in all zoogeographical regions and is especially diverse in South America.

Saturniidae Family of moths

Saturniidae, commonly known as 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.

This page is a list of lists of some of the 160,000 species of Lepidoptera that are commonly known as moths.

<i>Deilephila elpenor</i> Species of moth

Deilephila elpenor, the elephant hawk moth or large elephant hawk moth, is a moth in the family Sphingidae. Its common name is derived from the caterpillar's resemblance to an elephant's trunk. It is most common in central Europe and is distributed throughout the Palearctic region. Its distinct olive and pink coloring makes it one of the most recognizable moths in its range. However, it is quite easy to confuse the elephant hawk moth with the small elephant hawk moth, a closely related species that also shares the characteristic colors.

<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.

Butterfly gardening

Butterfly gardening is a way to create, improve, and maintain habitat for lepidopterans including butterflies, skippers, and moths. Butterflies have four distinct life stages—egg, larva, chrysalis, and adult. In order to support and sustain butterfly populations, an ideal butterfly garden contains habitat for each life stage. Butterfly larvae, except the carnivorous harvester , consume plant matter and can be generalists or specialists. While butterflies like the painted lady are known to consume over 200 plants as caterpillars, other species like the monarch , and the regal fritillary only consume plants in one genus, milkweed and violets, respectively. Milkweed grows in every state in the United States except Alaska.

<i>Hyles lineata</i> Species of moth

Hyles lineata, also known as the white-lined sphinx, is a moth of the family Sphingidae. They are sometimes erroneously referred to as the hummingbird moth because of their bird-like size and flight patterns.

<i>Epargyreus clarus</i>

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.

Wild silk

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.

Insect Class of invertebrates

Insects or Insecta are pancrustacean hexapod invertebrates and the largest group within the arthropod phylum. Definitions and circumscriptions vary; usually, insects comprise a class within the Arthropoda. As used here, the term Insecta is synonymous with Ectognatha. Insects have a chitinous exoskeleton, a three-part body, three pairs of jointed legs, compound eyes and one pair of antennae. 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.

External morphology of Lepidoptera

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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