Discover Noctuid Moths: A Comprehensive Quick Guide

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Noctuid moths, also known as owlet moths, are an intriguing and diverse group of insects. As the largest family in the order Lepidoptera, Noctuidae consists of over 2,500 species found across the United States and Canada. These moths have distinct features such as filiform antennae, an unbranched subcosta, and three medio-cubital veins that reach the distal margin of their wings.

These predominantly nocturnal creatures exhibit a fascinating range of appearances. Adult noctuid moths can be small to large in size, and their heavy bodies are often camouflaged with intricate patterns on their wings, mimicking tree bark or bird droppings. A select few showcase bright reds, oranges, or yellows with black markings, signaling to predators that they are toxic or unpalatable. Some notable examples in this family include the armyworms, cutworms, corn earworms, and iris borers.

While noctuid moths may be primarily known for their pest-like behavior to some, their role in nocturnal pollination is vital to the ecosystem. Night-flowering plants often produce pale or white flowers with a strong fragrance and copious amounts of dilute nectar, which cater to both nocturnal and day-active moth pollinators.

Noctuid Moth Basics

What is a Noctuid Moth?

Noctuid moths, also known as owlet moths, belong to the Noctuidae family. They are a diverse group of moths that includes over 2,500 species in the United States and Canada.

Noctuidae Family and Order Lepidoptera

Noctuidae is the largest family in the order Lepidoptera, which also contains butterflies. Some common noctuid moth species include:

  • Armyworms
  • Cutworms
  • Loopers

Physical Characteristics

Adult noctuid moths vary in size, typically having a heavy body for their size. They hold their wings tentlike over their bodies, displaying intricate patterns and colors that may resemble tree bark or bird droppings for camouflage.

Characteristics of noctuid moths:

  • Filiform antennae
  • Unbranched subcosta
  • Three medio-cubital veins reaching the distal margin of wings

Some noctuid moths are colorful, with bright reds, oranges, or yellows with black markings on their wings. For example, the common spragueia moth has distinctive orange, yellow, and black markings.

Noctuid moth caterpillars perform various ecological roles, such as:

  • Feeding on plants like ragweed and bindweed (e.g., common spragueia caterpillars)
  • Being a food source for predators like birds and other insects

Noctuid moths and their caterpillars are mostly nocturnal, which means they are active during the night. Moths contribute to pollination by visiting flowers with pale or white petals, heavy fragrance, and copious dilute nectar.

Behavior and Ecology

Nocturnal Habits

Noctuid moths are part of the order Lepidoptera, and they exhibit nocturnal habits. They are highly active during the night, with some species also being active during the day. This serves to avoid predators like birds, which are mostly active during daylight hours. The nocturnal nature of these moths often relies on their ability to use the darkness as camouflage, blending in with tree bark, for example.

Feeding Preferences

  • Host plants: Noctuid moths utilize a diverse range of host plants for their larvae. This diversity also results in varied diets for adult moths.
  • Nectar: Adult Noctuid moths feed on nectar from flowers, including nocturnal flowers with pale or white colors.
  • Hovering or landing: Some moths hover above flowers while feeding, while others land on the flower itself.

Here’s a comparison table of adult noctuid moth feeding preferences:

Hovering Landing
Feed while flying Rest on the flower during feeding
Faster feeding process Slower feeding process
May consume less nectar May consume more nectar

Predators and Defenses

The primary predators of noctuid moths are bats. The moths have developed some interesting adaptations to defend themselves against these predators:

  1. Erratic flying: Noctuid moths usually begin flying erratically right before a bat swoops to get them. This can include diving or cartwheeling to avoid being caught.
  2. Mottled appearance: Many noctuid moths have a mottled pattern on their wings, which helps them blend in with their surroundings and avoid being detected by predators.
  3. Hairy ears: Some noctuid moths, like the earworm species, have hairy ears, which they use to detect the ultrasonic sounds emitted by bats. This allows them to react in time and evade capture.

Classification and Diversity

Importance of Subfamilies and Taxonomy

Noctuid moths belong to the family Noctuidae, which is renowned for its complex taxonomy. Understanding their classification into subfamilies is essential for identification and conservation efforts. Some noteworthy subfamilies include:

  • Plusiinae
  • Acronictinae
  • Acontiinae

Noctuid moths exhibit a wide range of colors and patterns. Many are camouflaged to resemble tree bark or bird droppings, while others sport vivid yellows, reds, and oranges.

Notable Species and Variations

There are numerous unique noctuid moth species, each presenting interesting characteristics. A few examples are:

  • Noctua pronuba: Also known as the large yellow underwing, this moth is native to eastern North America. With a wingspan of 45-60 mm, it is larger than many other noctuid moths.
  • Dagger moths: Defined by their dagger-like markings on their wings, this group includes the iris borer, a notorious garden pest.
  • Dart moths: These moths belong to the geometrid family and are named for their swift and darting flight patterns.

Noctuid caterpillars are often pudgy, and their life cycle consists of four stages: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. Here are some distinguishing features of noctuid moths:

  • Heavy body for their size
  • Wings held tentlike over their bodies
  • Feathery or saw-edged antennae
  • Camouflaged or colorful patterns

Comparison Table

Feature Noctuid Moth Geometrid Moth
Family Noctuidae Geometridae
Camouflage Tree bark, bird droppings Varies
Antennae Feathery or saw-edged Often filamentous
Flight pattern Varies Looper-style or agile

Morphology and Anatomy

Unique Wing Structures

Noctuid moths are known for their distinct wing structures and patterns, with many species exhibiting camouflage to resemble tree bark or bird droppings source. Their front wings have medio-cubital veins, while their hind wings showcase unique venation patterns.

  • Front wings: Medio-cubital veins
  • Hind wings: Unique wing venation patterns

Antennae and Sensory Organs

Noctuid moths typically possess filiform antennae, which are thread-like and segmented. These antennae play a vital role in sensory perception, allowing the moth to detect its surroundings.

Their senses are further enhanced by tympanal organs, which act as auditory structures, even allowing some species to detect echolocation signals emitted by bats.

  • Filiform antennae: Thread-like and segmented
  • Tympanal organs: Auditory structures for detecting echolocation signals

Comparative Overview

Here’s a comparison table showcasing some differences between front wings and hind wings, as well as the antennae and sensory organs of noctuid moths:

Feature Benefits Characteristics
Front wings Enhanced flight ability Medio-cubital veins
Hind wings Unique patterns, camouflage Unique wing venation patterns
Filiform antennae Sensory perception Thread-like and segmented
Tympanal organs Auditory detection, echolocation Detect echolocation signals emitted by bats

Reproduction and Life Cycle

From Egg to Adult Moth

Noctuid moths, belonging to the superfamily Noctuoidea, have a typical moth life cycle. They progress from egg to caterpillar to pupa and finally to the winged adult moth. Adult noctuid moths are characterized by their heavy body and the way they hold their wings tent-like over their bodies. Most noctuids have ornate patterns on their wings with colors such as grey, white, and even bright reds or oranges1. Some species display black markings as a sign of being unpalatable, such as bird-dropping moths2.

  • Diets: Caterpillars feed on various plants, while adult moths mostly feed on nectar or don’t feed at all
  • Examples: Corn earworms, cutworm moths, velvetbean caterpillar moth

Diversity in Diets and Habitats

Noctuid moths and their caterpillars have diverse diets and habitats. Owlet caterpillars, for instance, can be found on a variety of plants. Other species, such as the corn earworm (Helicoverpa zea), have a more restricted diet, primarily feeding on corn and other crops3. To illustrate the diversity in diets, here are a few examples of noctuid moths and their preferred food sources:

Moth Species Caterpillar Food Source
Noctua comes Mixed herbaceous plants
Chrysodeixis chalcites Tomato & lettuce
Lacanobia oleracea Cabbage & potato
Mamestra brassicae Cabbage & broccoli
Autographa gamma Potato & soybean

As noctuids can be found in various habitats, from forests to farmlands, understanding their dietary preferences helps in the development of pest control strategies. It’s essential to recognize which species are harmful, such as the Old World bollworm (Helicoverpa armigera) known for destroying crops, to devise appropriate solutions4.

Footnotes

  1. https://mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/field-guide/noctuid-moths
  2. https://education.mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/field-guide/noctuid-moths
  3. https://www.fs.usda.gov/wildflowers/pollinators/animals/moths.shtml
  4. https://canr.msu.edu/resources/spongy-moth-life-cycle

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about these insects. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Letter 1 – Unknown Moth with long front legs is Litter Moth

 

Subject: weird moth
Location: central Kentucky
September 3, 2012 12:34 pm
Not sure what this is. Has weird wings and praying mantis type hands.
Signature: Jason

Unknown Moth

Hi Jason,
We agree that this is a moth, but it is not something we recognize, nor do we ever recall seeing a similar looking moth.  We are going to post your letter immediately in the hopes that one of our readers can steer us in the right direction, and we are also going to contact Eric Eaton for assistance.

Eric Eaton Responds
I recognize it, but I can’t find another example, either 🙁
Eric

Ed. Note:  We also requested assistance from Julian Donahue.

Hi James,
The webmaster for What’s That Bug? sent me this noctuid photo, but I don’t have access to the collection (nor my brain cells). It’s familiar, but I hesitate to guess it’s identity; don’t even know if it’s considered a noctuid or erebid these days?
Thanks for your help,
Julian (you can reply directly to Daniel Marlos, and he’ll post your ID and comments on the website)

James Adams provides an identification
Hey guys,
This is almost undoubtedly Palthis asopialis, though the low lighting and low resolution make it difficult to be sure.  The only other possibility would be Palthis angulalis.
HOpe this helps.
James K. Adams
Professor of Biology, Dalton State College

Dear James and Julian,
Wow, we actually considered the Litter Moths, but the front legs on the individuals on BugGuide did not look as long as the legs on the individual in the photograph submitted to What’s That Bug?  Thanks for the identification James.

Letter 2 – Noctuoid Caterpillar, Tinolius eburneigutta, from Thailand

 

Subject:  Caterpillar Chiang Mai Thailand
Geographic location of the bug:  Chiang Mai Thailand
Date: 09/29/2017
Time: 02:44 AM EDT
Would like to know what is it called and is it poisonous / itchy. Do want to try. Quick searches on the web look like Dice Moth Caterpillar but a different color? Rhanidophora Ridens.
Found it on leaves of a small bush near a creek. September 29th 2017  temperature here is 31 to 24c tail end of rainy season.
How you want your letter signed:  🙂

I think I found it.
Tinolius eburneigutta
Hope that save you some time.
Best regards,
Eric

Noctuoid Caterpillar: Tinolius eburneigutta

Dear Eric,
Your images are gorgeous, and so is the caterpillar.  Thanks for getting back to us with your identification of
Tinolius eburneigutta.  We found it pictured on Insects in Indian Agroecosystems, pBase and on Project Noah.

Noctuoid Caterpillar: Tinolius eburneigutta
Noctuoid Caterpillar: Tinolius eburneigutta

Letter 3 – Litter Moth

 

Subject: What is This Little Guy?
Location: South Western Wisconsin
July 10, 2016 8:25 am
Hello!
I found this bug on my door handle outside of my home. I’ve yet to find out what kind of bug it is and I’m very curious as I have never seen such a weird looking insect.
Thank you for you time!
Signature: Sincerely, Alli J.

Litter Moth
Litter Moth

Dear Alli J.,
The first time we received an image of such a long legged moth, we were totally stumped until a reader wrote in that it was a Litter Moth in the genus
Palthis.  Interestingly, though there a many images for the genus on BugGuide, very few show the front legs extended, and this BugGuide image is the closest we can find that looks like your individual.  Moth Photographers Group also has images, but none show the legs extended as in your image.

Letter 4 – Lunate Zale visits WTB? offices

 

Subject:  Lunate Zale
Geographic location of the bug:  Mount Washington, Los Angeles, California
Date: 06/22/2020
Time: 8:35 AM EDT
While working in the yard, Daniel couldn’t help but to notice this new species to the porch light, a Lunate Zale, Zale lunata, which we identified on BugGuide.  According to BugGuide:  “Adults – quite variable with both fore- and hindwings dark brown with shades of yellow, red brown and black, sometimes with white or silver marginal patches.”  The pronounced “shoulder pads” are not evident in most images, but The Natural History of Orange County includes images that reveal these unusual features.

Lunate Zale

 

Letter 5 – Moth from Australia

 

What type on God’s green earth is this moth?????
Location: Cairns, Queensland, Australia
February 18, 2011 3:48 am
This photo was taken last night on the screen door of my cousin’s apartment in Cairns, Australia. What sort of moth is it??? Is there something wrong with it – it looks like it has eggs or bubbles or something on it’s head. My cousin also said it has ’horns’
Signature: Researched Out!

noctuoid_australia

Dear Researched Out,
We are exhausted thinking about what it must be like to research this creature.  We believe it is a member of the superfamily Noctuoidea, and in a playful moment, we would call it a Noctuoid.  We can’t help but to wonder if that odd blue head is a trait of this moth, or if there is something alien going on.  We don’t have the time to research this at the moment, and we might even believe it would be a fruitless search.

Update from Karl
Hi Daniel and Researched Out:
I don’t know if I can advance this any further but I will give it a shot.  It is unfortunate that the photo isn’t a little sharper because there appear to be some fairly distinctive details that are frustratingly not quite discernible.  The overall appearance and color look a lot like the Fruit-piercing Moth (Noctuidae: Catocalinae), Eudocima iridescens (formerly Othreis iridescens). The front end of this moth is definitely strange and interesting and could perhaps, under certain conditions, be interpreted as covered in bubbles (if they really were bubbles then I remain stumped). It has a distinctive ruff of raised feathery hairs that looks similar to your photo. This could give the appearance of ‘horns’, and I did come across one site that described the females as having horns.  Does this look something like what you saw? Regards.  Karl.

Letter 6 – Noctuid Moth from Australia

 

Pataeta carbo
Hi guys,
Thought you might like this pic to add to your database. The moth is about 3/4" long and the caterpillar feeds on eucalyptus. It has the appearance of Black Velvet up close. Here is a link to the full info. Taken on the window ledge outside my work on the Gold Coast, Queensland. 29th February 2008. regards,
Trevor Jinks

Hi Trevor,
Thanks for continuing to keep our site replenished with such a constant supply of “new to us” Australian insects. The Australian Moths page also indicates that the caterpillars of Pataeta carbo feed on gum or eucalyptus trees.

Letter 7 – Possibly Noctuid Moth from Madagascar

 

Subject: Madagascar Moth…..
Location: Ankarafantsika NP, Madagascar
March 13, 2013 3:28 pm
Can’t find anything on the internet that looks like this one. Can you please help me out?!
Photo taken October 23, 2011.
Signature: Kristian

Geometrid Moth, we believe
Owlet Moth, we believe

Hi Kristian,
We believe this is a member of the family Geometridae, the Measuring Worm Moths.  Alas, we haven’t the time right now to delve any deeper into its classification.

Correction Courtesy of Cesar Crash
Cesar provided a comment and a link to a Japanese moth that looks very similar that is either an Owlet Moth or a member of the family Erebidae

Letter 8 – Probably Noctuoid Moth

 

Subjec:  Moth
Geographic location of the bug:  Virginia Beach, Virginia
Date: 05/31/2019
Time: 06:53 PM EDT
Your letter to the bugman:  Please identify this moth
How you want your letter signed:  Maurice culken

Noctuoid we believe

Dear Maurice,
Because of its resemblance to the moths in the genus Tolype, we thought this might be a member of the family Lasiocampidae, be we could not find any similar looking species on BugGuide, so we now believe this is a member of the very large superfamily Noctuoidea represented on BugGuide, but we have not had luck identifying the species.  Perhaps one of our readers will recognize this Moth. 

Letter 9 – Probably Noctuoid Moth Pupa

 

Thank you for your response. Here is the information, I also attached the 2 photos.

Subject: A Red Grub in NC
Geographic Location: North Carolina – Inner Coastal Plain/Piedmont Region
March 9, 2016 9:58 am
My 4-year-old daughter was digging in the dirt on a sunny 75-degree day in early March, in the greater Raleigh area of North Carolina. She discovered a deep-red grub of some sort just a few inches below the surface, and is very interested in what it is so she can learn more about its life cycle, diet, etc. It does not appear to have legs, but does wriggle at the segmented parts, and it looks like it has developing wings or something, though it is one solid mass at this point. Its mouth is very small, black, and 2-pronged. Any ideas? She has already released her critter, but desperately wants to know more, and my endless search through photo archives has yet to yield any promising results. Thank you!
Homeschool Mom

Moth Pupa
Moth Pupa

Dear Homeschool Mom,
We will not be able to provide you with a specific identification, but this is a moth pupa, most likely in the Superfamily Noctuoidea.  Pupae can be very difficult to identify conclusively.  There is quite a debate over the pupae represented in this BugGuide image.  Our gut reaction is that your daughter found an Owlet Moth Pupa from the family Noctuidae.  See BugGuide images here, here and here.  Many Cutworms form similar pupae.  Keeping the pupa in a container covered in a small amount of moist, not damp, dirt will allow it to continue metamorphosis until maturity at which time identification might be easier, but many Owlet Moths are small, drab moths similar in appearance, and exact species identification may take an expert in the family.  Our identifications with Owlet Moths tend to be general.

Thank you so much for your response! I’ll tell her what you said, and we’ll investigate your links. If she finds it again, we’ll watch the process and see for ourselves. Thank you!

Letter 10 – Sundowner Moth drinks wine in South Africa

 

Subject: wine drinking moth
Location: Waterberg mountains, South Africa
November 26, 2015 5:52 am
The two images of this moth which was very interested in my red wine were taken in the Mabalingwe game reserve in the Waterberg mountains two hours north of Johannesburg, South Africa.
I wondered what it is and whether moths often like wine?
Signature: Dave Smith

Sundowner Moth
Sundowner Moth

Dear Dave,
We quickly identified your Noctuoid Moth as a Sundowner Moth,
Sphingomorpha chlorea, by first finding a matching image on the Kenya Natural History Guide where it states:  “The larvae (caterpillars) of this moth are reported to feed on the foliage of various acacias. The adult moths would be well hidden on the rough bark of the trees, but are vulnerable to predation when attracted to lights. Birds, bats, lizards and toads are among the animals that feast on the insects coming to electric lights.”  There are numerous nice images on iSpot.  Many Noctuoids are attracted to fermentation from rotting fruit, and this would include wine.  

Sundowner Moth
Sundowner Moth

Dear Daniel,
Many thanks for the speedy reply to this and the query about the Brown SA beetle. I shall follow up on the links you have given.
Kind Regards
Dave Smith

Letter 11 – The Herald

 

Subject: Moth claims strawberry for dinner
Location: Mankato, Minnesota
August 4, 2015 3:47 pm
Dear Bugman,
I captured this moth for identification. He was quite adamant about not wanting to share my strawberry. I thought it resembled a trumpet vine moth. Could you please confirm if I identified it properly?
Signature: Tera Sandon

The Herald
The Herald

Dear Tera,
We disagree with your belief that this is a Trumpet Vine Moth,
Clydonopteron sacculana, a species pictured on BugGuide.  Rather, we believe it is The Herald, Scoliopteryx libatrix, a species also pictured on BugGuide where it is described as:  “Distinctive. Scalloped outer margins of forewing and hindwing. Forewing is gray with wavy lines, has central bright orange patches with metallic flecks.”

Thank you for the prompt reply.  I too believe you are right about the identification. The place that I found it was in the strawberries under the white birch.  I have two old Poplar trees in the yard and can safely assume that it may have grown up and developed on one of them. I’ll be sad to see those trees taken down next week.    How very fascinating to be able to host such beautiful creatures in my yard and gardens.  The plethora of insects that visit my yard are too many to count. It’s a site to behold and the only ones that irritate me are the mosquitos.  Thanks again for your help in identification.

Hi again Tera,
After creating a new posting for you, we realized we had a UK posting of The Herald as well, and we learned on UK Moths:  “Quite a spectacular species, this colourful moth overwinters as an adult, and as a result, can be one of the last species to be seen in one year, and one of the first in the next. It is also sometimes found hibernating inside barns and outbuildings.  The adults are attracted to both light and sugar” which probably means that was a very sweet strawberry.  They are members of the family Erebidae which includes The Black Witch, Underwing Moths and Fruit Piercing Moths, all long lived representatives of the family.

Letter 12 – Venus Turntail from Malawi

 

beautifull unknown moth?
Location: Dwangwa, Malawi, Africa
May 2, 2012 3:24 am
Haai! I found this beautifull moth just outside our house, I have no idea what it might be, but i would really like to know!
From Jani Bester
Signature: Dear Jani

Venus Turntail from Malawi

Hi Jani,
We had some technical difficulties with the website and we were not able to post your identification request sooner.  Superficially, the wings on your moth resemble those of a Sphinx Moth or Hawkmoth in the family Sphingidae, but we have never seen legs like that on a Sphinx.  There is also something about the characteristics of this creature that reminds us of a North American species known as the Spotted Apatelodes from the Silkworm Moths family Bombycidae.  Since our site is not that scientific, we have lumped that underrepresented family into the Giant Silkworm Moths family Saturniidae on our site.  Interestingly, the three families we just mentioned, Sphingidae, Bombycidae and Saturniidae are all classified in the same superfamily Bombycoidea.  See BugGuidefor this classification and the North American species associated with the superfamily.  We will check with Bill Oehlke who assists us with two of those families to see if he can provide any additional information.  Meanwhile, can you provide us with any information on the size of this marvelous looking moth?

Unidentified Moth from Malawi

Hey! Yes, I actually have the moth! I collect insects!
It has a wingspan of about 5-6 cm and 4cm in length.
The colours on the wings are amazing!
Would you maby like me to take more pictures up close?

Bill Oehlke forwards Thierry Bouyer’s identification
Daniel,
I did not recognize it so asked for other opinions.
Here is what Thierry Bouyer wrote:
It’s a noctuid
Pacidara venutissima Walker, 1865 male
it’s a panafrican species that also comes to banana bait trap
The species is really beautiful !

Ed. Note:  See http://www.drlegrain.be/0nyungwe/nuit/noctuidae/euteliinae/0euteliinae.html

Wow! Thank you so very very much!! I really appreciate it!

Letter 13 – Tiger Moth from Thailand

 

Subject:  A very different moth
Geographic location of the bug:  Baan Maka Chalet, near Kaeng Krachan National Park, Petchaburi, Thailand
Your letter to the bugman:  I am fascinated with moths and have many postings on iNaturalist  of these insects, representing many families.  However, I am completely befuddled as to what Family this very interesting and different moth belongs in.  Can you help?
How you want your letter signed:  Pam Piombino, Colorado

Tiger Moth

Dear Pam,
We believe you moth is a member of the superfamily Noctuoidea.

Thanks, Daniel.  Actually, the owner of Baan Maka found the correct i.d. in the Moths of Thailand under Arctidae:   Trischalis subaurana
He has also photographed two other members of the same Genus on his property.  They must be quite rare as I looked for days in web searches for another that resembled my photo.
All the best, Pam

Thanks for the update Pam and the iNaturalist link.  Arctiidae as been reclassified as the subfamily Arctiinae within the family Erebidae and under the general superfamily Noctuoidea.

Thank you for the education!  I am a beginner with so very much to learn, Pam

Authors

  • Bugman

    Bugman aka Daniel Marlos has been identifying bugs since 1999. whatsthatbug.com is his passion project and it has helped millions of readers identify the bug that has been bugging them for over two decades. You can reach out to him through our Contact Page.

    View all posts
  • Piyushi Dhir

    Piyushi is a nature lover, blogger and traveler at heart. She lives in beautiful Canada with her family. Piyushi is an animal lover and loves to write about all creatures.

    View all posts
Tags: Noctuid Moth

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