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Large yellow underwing, Noctua pronuba
Scientific classification Red Pencil Icon.png
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Arthropoda
Class: Insecta
Order: Lepidoptera
Clade: Eulepidoptera
Clade: Ditrysia
Clade: Apoditrysia
(unranked): Obtectomera
Clade: Macroheterocera
Superfamily: Noctuoidea
(See text)
over 70,000 species

Noctuoidea is the superfamily of noctuid (Latin "night owl") or "owlet" moths, and has more than 70,000 described species, the largest number of for any Lepidopteran superfamily. Its classification has not yet reached a satisfactory or stable state. Since the end of the 20th century, increasing availability of molecular phylogenetic data for this hugely successful radiation has led to several competing proposals for a taxonomic arrangement that correctly represents the relationships between the major lineages.


Briefly, the disputes center on the fact that in old treatments (which were just as unable to reach a general consensus) the distinctness of some groups, such as the Arctiidae or Lymantriidae, was overrated due to their characteristic appearance, while some less-studied lineages conventionally held to be Noctuidae are in fact quite distinct. This requires a rearrangement at least of the latter family (by simply including anything disputed within it). This is quite unwieldy, and various more refined treatments have been proposed in response to it. While there is general agreement on what the basal families of Noctuoidea are, the more diverse advanced group may be treated as one all-encompassing Noctuidae, two huge and two smaller, or even (if Arctiidae or Lymantriida are kept distinct) more than four families, which are in some cases still quite sizeable.

Recent developments

There are several recent studies suggesting a radical change in the traditional family level classification. Recent works in redefining the families within the Noctuoidea has been carried out by Kitching (1984), Poole (1995), Kitching and Rawlins [1998], Speidel et al. (1996), Mitchell et al. (1997, 2000, 2006), Fibiger and Lafontaine (2005), Lafontaine and Fibiger (2006) and Zahiri et al. (2010).

The Noctuoidea can be divided into two broad groups, those with a trifid forewing venation (Oenosandridae, Notodontidae and Doidae), and those with a quadrifid forewing venation (e.g., Arctiidae, Lymantriidae, Nolidae, Noctuidae). What has emerged from these investigations is that the quadrifid Noctuoidea form a monophyletic group. In 2005, Fibiger and Lafontaine arranged the quadrifid (forewing) group into several families, including the quadrifine (hindwing) Erebidae and trifine (hindwing) Noctuidae, based on evidence that suggested that the trifine noctuid subfamilies were derived from within the quadrifine subfamilies, so the family Erebidae would not be strictly monophyletic.

Lafontaine and Fibiger in 2006 then redefined the Noctuidae to include the entire quadrifid group, believing the Arctiidae, Lymantriidae, and Nolidae to be derived from within this expanded concept of Noctuidae (and closely related to the subfamily Catocalinae). In essence, groups such as the Arctiidae, which had previously been treated as a separate family, were more closely related to groups within the Noctuidae than to non-noctuid families. In order to address this, a revised classification would have meant either recognizing over 20 (often weakly defined) families, or a single well-defined family with numerous subfamilies. The latter was adopted (Lafontaine and Fibiger 2006).

More recent evidence from nuclear genes (Zahiri et al. 2010) confirms that the quadrifid (forewing) noctuoids form a monophyletic group, but also that this group can be further arranged into four monophyletic subgroups: 1) the quadrifine subfamilies; 2) the trifine subfamilies; 3) the Nolinae; and 4) the Euteliinae. Considering the massive size of the family, and the large number of subfamilies, tribes, and subtribes to arrange into a classification, Zahiri et al. (2010) chose the option of recognizing these four groups as families, namely Erebidae, Noctuidae, Nolidae, and Euteliidae, in addition to the basal trifid families.


This follows Lafontaine & Fibiger (2006), with the additions of Thiacidinae Hacker & Zilli, 2007 and taxa in Micronoctuidae Fibiger, 2005. Note that the placement of Arctiidae, Lymantriidae and Nolidae as subfamilies of Noctuidae has been largely rejected by subsequent authors. An updated classification for North American Noctuoidea has recently been published (Lafontaine & Schmidt, 2010) and further changes are imminent for a global molecular review of the superfamily (Zahiri et al., in press).

Related Research Articles

Noctuidae Type of moths commonly known as owlet moths, cutworms or armyworms

The Noctuidae, commonly known as owlet moths, cutworms or armyworms, are 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. However, this classification is still contingent, as more changes continue to appear between Noctuidae and Erebidae.

Lymantriinae subfamily of insects

The Lymantriinae are a subfamily of moths of the family Erebidae. The taxon was erected by George Hampson in 1893.

<i>Apamea</i> (moth) genus of insects

Apamea is a genus of moths in the family Noctuidae first described by Ferdinand Ochsenheimer in 1816.

<i>Agrotis</i> genus of insects

Agrotis is a genus of moths of the family Noctuidae. The genus was erected by Ferdinand Ochsenheimer in 1816. A number of the species of this genus are extinct.

Calpinae subfamily of insects

The Calpinae are a subfamily of moths in the family Erebidae described by Jean Baptiste Boisduval in 1840. This subfamily includes many species of moths that have a pointed and barbed proboscis adapted to piercing the skins of fruit to feed on juice, and in the case of the several Calyptra species of vampire moths, to piercing the skins of mammals to feed on blood. The subfamily contains some large moths with wingspans longer than 5 cm (2 in).

Hypeninae subfamily of insects

The Hypeninae are a subfamily of moths in the family Erebidae. The taxon was first described by Gottlieb August Wilhelm Herrich-Schäffer in 1851. A notable species is Mecistoptera griseifusa, which lives solely on tears it drinks with its proboscis.

Phaegopterina 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.

<i>Zanclognatha</i> genus of insects

Zanclognatha is a genus of litter moths of the family Erebidae. The genus was described by Julius Lederer in 1857.

Isogona is a genus of moths of the family Erebidae. The genus was erected by Achille Guenée in 1852.

<i>Dichagyris</i> genus of insects

Dichagyris is a genus of moths of the family Noctuidae. The former genera Loxagrotis, Pseudorichia, Pseudorthosia and Mesembragrotis are now considered subgenera of Dichagyris. From Greek dikha-gyris 'apart, asunder; double' + 'the finest meal or flour'; English pronunciation: /digh-kuh-JIGH-riss/, IPA [dɑj•kə'dʒɑj•ɹɪs].

<i>Drasteria</i> genus of insects

Drasteria is a genus of moths in the family Erebidae.

<i>Euxoa</i> genus of insects

Euxoa is a genus of moths of the family Noctuidae.

<i>Homodes</i> genus of insects

Homodes is a genus of moths of the family Erebidae first described by Achille Guenée in 1852.

<i>Leucania</i> genus of insects

Leucania is a genus of moths of the family Noctuidae first described by Ferdinand Ochsenheimer in 1816.

<i>Asota</i> (moth) Genus of moths

Asota is a genus of moths in the family Erebidae first described by Jacob Hübner in 1819. Species are widely distributed throughout Africa, India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, the Malayan region and tropical parts of the Australian region.

Erebinae subfamily of insects

The Erebinae are a subfamily of moths in the family Erebidae erected by William Elford Leach in 1815. Erebine moths are found on all continents except Antarctica, but reach their greatest diversity in the tropics. While the exact number of species belonging to the Erebinae is not known, the subfamily is estimated to include around 10,000 species. Some well-known Erebinae include underwing moths (Catocala) and witch moths (Thermesiini). Many of the species in the subfamily have medium to large wingspans, up to nearly 30 cm in the white witch moth, which has the widest wingspan of all Lepidoptera. Erebine caterpillars feed on a broad range of plants; many species feed on grasses and legumes, and a few are pests of castor bean, sugarcane, rice, as well as pistachios and blackberries.

The Micronoctuini are a tribe of moths in the family Erebidae that includes about 400 described species. Typical species in the tribe have bifine hindwing venation and are smaller than those in other noctuoid moths. Micronoctua karsholti is the smallest of all species in the superfamily Noctuoidea.

Stiriina is a subtribe of owlet moths in the family Noctuidae. There are at least 50 described species in Stiriina.