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Families and subfamilies of larger moths

Family Hepialidae

The ghost moths or swift moths are primitive moths with very short antennae, long abdomens, and hindwings rather similar in shape and wing venation to the forewings. The family is well represented in New Zealand with 30 species, including our largest moth species, the Puriri Moth (Aenetus virescens) with a wingspan up to 150 mm in the female. Aenetus is confined to the North Island; caterpillars form characteristic scars on trunks of native and introduced trees. Other hepialid larvae in New Zealand are more or less subterranean, forming tunnels in the soil of grasslands or wetlands (e.g., Wiseana spp, the porina moths) or under leaf-litter in forests (e.g., Dumbletonius spp.). Adults of many species are crepuscular, flying at dusk, and coming to light before it is fully dark, but Aenetus tends to fly later in the night.

Family Zygaenidae

The burnet and forester moths are an unusual family of day-flying Lepidoptera, many of which are brightly coloured and distasteful to birds and other vertebrate predators. They are naturally absent from New Zealand, and only a single introduced species, the bamboo moth (Artona martini) is present, having first been detected in Whangarei in 1996. It is has now spread as far as Auckland; the hairy larvae can cause conspicuous defoliation of bamboos in gardens and parks and sometimes occur locally in huge numbers. The diurnal adults are less conspicuous. Artoni martini originates in South-east Asia, and was presumably introduced accidentally through trade.

Family Sesiidae

The clearwings are another unusual family of day-flying moths, most of which are mimics of wasps or bees, with partially transparent wings. They are day-flying but often very hard to find as adults; caterpillars are internal feeders in a wide range of plants. There is only a single introduced European species in New Zealand: the currant clearwing (Synanthedon tipuliformis), which as its name suggests, feeds as a caterpillar inside stems of cultivated currants (Ribes spp.). Adults may occasionally be seen flying around the currant bushes in sunshine. They are rarely found north of the central North Island.

Family Geometridae

The loopers are a very large family of moths (over 20,000 species worldwide), well represented in New Zealand by over 250 species, where most species are endemic. The common name comes from the larvae, which do not have the full complement of abdominal prolegs (usually they have prolegs only on segments 6 and 10), and therefore progress in the characteristic ‘inchworm’ looping motion. An important feature of the family is the presence of tympanal organs (‘ears’) at the base of the abdomen.

Subfamily Ennominae. All New Zealand Ennominae (about 55 species) are medium-sized relatively robust moths (although not as robust as Noctuidae), and the males in most genera have feathery antennae. In the genus Pseudocoremia, the hindwings are often yellowish and much brighter than the forewings under which they are concealed when the moth is at rest. Declana contains robust noctuid-like species, most exhibiting lichen-like or bark-like patterning. Some, like D. floccosa, are very variable in colour pattern. The fern loopers in the genera Ischalis, Sarisa and Sestra have scalloped or hook-tipped forewings, usually with strong dark lines running across them; males have simple, non-feathery antennae. Chalastra males do have feathery antennae; C. aristarcha and pellurgata are medium-sized moths with distinctive white markings. ‘Chalastraochrea is more Pseudocoremia-like and does not really belong with the other two Chalastra species. Gellonia and Cleora are large brown moths, with feathery antennae in the males, and scalloped edges to the wings. Cleora scriptaria, the kawakawa looper, is especially variable in pattern; its current genus placement is likely to be incorrect. Zermizinga indocilisaria is a small, grey, rather atypical ennomine, with an eastern distribution in New Zealand. The female is short-winged (brachypterous); the species almost certainly originates from Australia.

Subfamily Larentiinae. The Larentiinae are very well represented in New Zealand with about 200 described species. They tend to be more delicate, butterfly-like moths than Ennominae, and some species (e.g. Asaphodes aegrota, Austrocidaria similata, Epyaxa rosearia) will hold their wings vertically above the body like a butterfly when at rest. The subfamily contains many brightly coloured day-flying species, especially in the endemic genera Paranotoreas, Notoreas and Dasyuris, many of which are restricted to open subalpine and alpine habitats. The cabbage tree looper (Epiphryne verriculata) is a common and well known species belonging to this subfamily: the adults are often illustrated as a fine example of crypsis when resting on the dead leaves of their larval host-plant Cordyline australis. The genus Tatosoma is remarkable for the highly elongated abdomens of the males; this feature has presumably evolved as a result of sexual selection by the females. The genus-level classification of Larentiinae in New Zealand is in need of extensive revision, e.g. moths currently assigned to the genus Hydriomena are all wrongly placed. At the species level, the genera Notoreas and Pasiphila are particularly difficult and badly in need of revision; identifications given here are based on those in NZAC and there may still be errors.

Subfamily Oenochrominae. The definition of this subfamily has not been fully resolved, and New Zealand species currently assigned here may be incorrectly placed. Our ‘oenochromines’ can be divided into three distinct groups. The genus Dichromodes contains species of open habitats with larvae feeding on lichens on rock or stone surfaces. Adults have elongate labial palps protruding forward from the head, and rather triangular forewings patterned for camouflage (usually with two parallel cross-lines in the centre of the wing). Dichromodes species tend to be quite local, and D. sphaeriata is the only one that can be considered at all widespread and fairly common. There are several known undescribed species not depicted here, so care is needed in naming specimens, especially from alpine localities. The second group contains the species of Adeixis, Samana and Theoxena; these are similar to Dichromodes in their labial palpi and in forewing shape, but the wing pattern contains an oblique dark stripe that ends near the forewing apex. Samana species have larvae feeding on Carmichaelia (Fabaceae); hosts of Adeixis griseata and Theoxena scissaria appear to be unknown. Females of Theoxena and of Samana acutata have not been collected and may be brachypterous and flightless. The third group of ‘oenochromines’ is very different from the others; these are the three species of Xyridacma. They are large, very broad-winged geometers with inconspicuous labial palps; they occur in forests and shrublands. All three Xyridacma species are very variable in wing colour and pattern, so an exact match to the depicted specimens should not be expected; wing shape is the best distinguishing feature. The host plants are Pseudopanax (X. alectoraria), Pittosporum (X. ustaria) and Hebe (X. veronicae).

Subfamily Sterrhinae. Only a single species of this cosmopolitan subfamily (usually called ‘waves’) occurs in New Zealand; this is Scopula rubraria, which also occurs widely in Australia. It is a very common species in pastures, roadsides and weedy places, especially in late summer, flying by day. Larvae feed on a variety of herbaceous plants, including plantain (Plantago spp.).

Family Saturniidae

The very large and unmistakeable gum emperor moth (Opodiphthera eucalypti) is our only species of this family of silk moths, and was introduced from Australia in the early 20th century. It is now widespread in New Zealand, larvae feeding chiefly on Eucalyptus spp. in gardens and parks, but also on Schinus (pepper tree).

Family Sphingidae

The hawk-moths are a family of large streamlined moths; many species are powerful fliers and migratory in habit. Only one cosmopolitan species occurs regularly and breeds in New Zealand, the convolvulus hawk-moth (Agrius convolvuli), with larvae feeding on Convolvulaceae, including kumara (sweet potato, Ipomoea batatas). The silver-striped hawk-moth (Hippotion celerio) occurs rarely as a migrant to New Zealand: there appear to be very few recent records.

Family Erebidae

This family name has recently been revived; the Erebidae now include the former families Arctiidae (tiger moths) and Lymantriidae (tussock moths) along with several subfamilies formerly assigned to Noctuidae. Like Noctuidae, Erebidae have tympanal organs (‘ears’) on the metathorax. The family is very diverse in the tropics, but there are very few truly native species in New Zealand.

Subfamily Lymantriinae. Naturally absent from New Zealand, the tussock moth subfamily is recorded here based on two accidentally introduced species which established briefly in the Auckland area, but were subsequently eradicated. Teia anartoides, the painted apple moth, originates from Australia. The female has strongly reduced wings and is flightless; males are day-flying. Orgyia thyellina, the white-spotted tussock moth, originates from South-east Asia, and has both winged (flying) and brachypterous (flightless) forms of the female. Both species have hairy larvae with characteristic ‘toothbrush’ tufts on the dorsum; larvae feed on a wide range of host plants, though Teia prefer wattle (Acacia spp.).

Subfamily Arctiinae. This subfamily (the tiger moths) contains many colourful species worldwide; larvae are hairy, with many secondary setae. The genus Metacrias is our only endemic genus of Arctiinae; the three species chiefly occur in open habitats at higher elevations, and are almost confined to the South Island; only M. huttoni occurs in the North Island (Ruahine Range). Females are flightless with minute wings, and males are diurnal with a strong, buzzing flight. Larvae feed on a variety of herbaceous plants. Two similar species of Utetheisa (crimson speckled footman) occur as migrants to New Zealand: U. pulchelloides ssp. vaga is a common migrant, with larvae on Boraginaceae; U. lotrix is very much rarer, with larvae on Fabaceae. The cinnabar moth, Tyria jacobaeae, is a European species introduced to New Zealand in the 1920s as a biological control agent for its larval host-plant ragwort (Jacobaea vulgaris (= Senecio jacobaea)). The conspicuous yellow and black banded larvae are distasteful to predators, as is the black and red day-flying adult. Nyctemera annulata is an endemic species of a widespread genus; larvae feed on Senecio spp. The closely related Australian N. amicus has reached northern New Zealand and now hybridises freely there with N. annulata; it can be difficult to distinguish the adults of the two species and the hybrid, but a white fringe to the wings probably always indicates some amicus parentage. Specimens with whitish lines at the base of the forewing along the veins are the most likely to be nearly pure amicus.

Other erebid subfamilies. All other Erebidae in New Zealand were formerly assigned to Noctuidae (subfamilies Catocalinae, Hypeninae and Hypenodinae). Subfamily placements still remain uncertain for some species, as the subfamily classification of Erebidae has so far been largely based on northern hemisphere genera. A number of species only occur in New Zealand as migrants from Australia (genera Achaea, Anomis, Eudocima, Hypocala); other Australian species have become established (the large Dasypodia spp. ,with larvae on Acacia, Pantydia sparsa, with larvae on a range of plants, and the geometrid-like Artigisa melanephele, with larvae on fungi and dead wood). Schrankia costaestrigalis is a common, near-cosmopolitan species; being small and slender-bodied, it is often mistaken for a micro-moth. Only two endemic erebid species are found in New Zealand: the common Rhapsa scotosialis, with larvae feeding on leaf-litter or hanging moss, and the less common Trigonistis anticlina, a forest species whose larvae are unknown.

Family Nolidae

Two species of this family (previously often treated as a subfamily of Noctuidae) are found in New Zealand. Larvae, as in Arctiinae, have many secondary setae. The endemic Nola parvitis is a rare species whose larvae feed on the endemic shrub Helichrysum lanceolatum. The gum-leaf skeletoniser, Uraba lugens, was accidentally introduced from Australia and is now common in the northern North Island, feeding on various Myrtaceae, especially Eucalyptus and Lophostemon.

Family Noctuidae

This is a huge worldwide family has about 140 named species in New Zealand, which by world standards is an extremely limited fauna. Adults have tympanal organs (‘ears’) on the metathorax, as do Erebidae. It should be noted that the species of Declana (Geometridae: Ennominae) resemble Noctuidae superficially with their robust bodies and narrowish forewings.

Subfamily Plusiinae. The caterpillars of moths in this subfamily have only three fully developed pairs of prolegs on the abdomen (those on segments 3 and 4 are lost or reduced). Thus they are often termed ‘loopers’, as they have a similar mode of progression to larvae of Geometridae. Adults usually have at least a small metallic marking on the forewing; Thysanoplusia orichalcea has extensive golden forewing patches. All New Zealand species occur overseas; Ctenoplusia limbirena is a very recently introduced species with a natural distribution from southern Europe through to south-east Asia; it appears to be established and can be expected to become commoner in New Zealand. Larvae of most species feed on a range of herbaceous plants, especially garden plants, but Ctenoplusia albostriata seems to prefer Asteraceae.

Subfamily Amphipyrinae s.l. Our two species of the endemic genus Bityla are true amphipyrines, closely related to the northern hemisphere Amphipyra. Larvae of B. defigurata feed on Muehlenbeckia vines; adults overwinter. The life history of B. sericea is currently unknown. Cosmodes is an unusual and striking endemic Australian genus containing the single species C. elegans; it occurs more or less regularly in New Zealand, and probably breeds here at least temporarily. Larvae feed on Lobelia and Verbena spp. Proteuxoa is a large Australian genus; of the three species known from New Zealand, one (P. sanguinipuncta) is a recent arrival, now well established. Two species have been confused under the name Proteuxoa comma, one of which may be undescribed, and both of which are thought to be endemic to New Zealand, though closely related to Australian species. Proteuxoa species have larvae feeding on a range of herbaceous plants. The proper systematic placement of both Proteuxoa and Cosmodes remains to be determined; they will probably be removed from Amphipyrinae.

Subfamily Agaristinae. Only the Australian Phalaenoides glycinae (grapevine moth) has been found in New Zealand. The conspicuous black, white and red caterpillar feeds mainly on members of the plant family Vitaceae (including Vitis, grapevine, and Parthenocissus, Virginia creeper), but is also recorded from other plants including cultivated Fuchsia. Formerly common in northern New Zealand, this moth seems to have declined greatly here, and there have been few records (if any) in the last 10 years.

Subfamily Condicinae. Only Condica illecta (formerly Platysenta illecta) has been recorded in New Zealand, where it occurs rarely as an immigrant. Overseas it is found in Australia and throughout south-east Asia and the Pacific, where the larvae feed on various herbaceous plants in the family Asteraceae.

Subfamily Heliothinae. The rare endemic heliothine Australothis volatilis is known only from a few sites in Central Otago, where larvae feed on Vittadinia (Asteraceae). Adults are day-flying. Our two species of Helicoverpa are immigrant pest species; H. armigera is by far the commoner species.

Subfamily Noctuinae. Noctuinae is by far the largest noctuid subfamily in New Zealand, and as defined here includes species formerly assigned to Hadeninae and Cuculliinae. The genus level classification of New Zealand noctuine species is unsatisfactory, and is currently under revision; boundaries of the endemic genera Physetica, Graphania, Tmetolophota and Ichneutica are likely to change substantially, and all species currently in ‘Aletia’ will be removed to these other genera. Most species are endemic, and the above genera are part of a large endemic radiation in the tribe Leucaniini. Larvae of most species feed on herbaceous plants, but all Meterana species and some Graphania are restricted to trees and shrubs. The species formerly included in Cuculliinae (Austramathes purpurea, ‘Homohadenafortis and ‘Andesiapessota) all have larvae on arboreal Violaceae (Melicytus spp.), as does the sole species currently assigned to Feredayia (F. graminosa). Species currently assigned to Tmetolophota are mostly monocot-feeders; a well-known example is the flax-notcher caterpillar (Tmetolophota steropastis). Graphania mutans is an extremely common, widespread and variable species; the polyphagous larvae are occasional pests of young apples in orchards. The two New Zealand species assigned formerly to Euxoa (admirationis and ceropachoides) are here returned to the genus Agrotis where they were originally described; A. ceropachoides is not depicted here as the only two known specimens are in the Natural History Museum in London; it has not been reliably recorded since it was described in 1868, and may be extinct.

Unknown family (Titanomis).

The large and highly enigmatic Titanomis sisyrota is known only from ten specimens (two of them lost), collected from scattered localities from the central North Island to the southern South Island. The last (one of the lost specimens) was collected in 1959. The life history is unknown, but the very elongate, probing ovipositor of the female suggests that larvae are internal feeders. Family placement of Titanomis has never been satisfactorily resolved; a recent published assignment to the micro-moth family Glyphipterigidae is almost certainly incorrect, since morphology of the base of the abdomen suggests a more advanced position in Ditrysia. Extinction is a possibility, but as the moth has only ever been collected extremely rarely at long intervals, and was apparently widespread, it may well await rediscovery.

Missing species.

Apart from unnamed species and species only recorded from the Kermadecs, or only captured once in New Zealand, there are a number of species of larger moth that are not represented in the image galleries. These fall into three categories:

1. Species for which it proved impossible to find or borrow good enough specimens for photography. The following species are in this category: Hepialidae: Aoraia hespera, A. oreobolae; Geometridae: Pseudocoremia hollyae, P. hudsoni, Austrocidaria prionota, Chloroclystis impudicis; Noctuidae: Agrotis ceropachoides.

2. Species of dubious taxonomic status, i.e. named species in unrevised groups that lack clear diagnostic features, that are not separated as species in NZAC, and that require further taxonomic investigation. Some may still prove to be valid species. The following species are currently in this category: Geometridae: Austrocidaria praerupta (not distinguished from A. callichlora), Dasyuris strategica, Homodotis amblyterma, ‘Hydriomena’ canescens (not distinguished from ‘H.’ clarkei), Notoreas galaxias, N. isoleuca, Pasiphila acompsa, P. punicea, P. vieta, Xanthorhoe lophogramma (not distinguished from X. semifissata); Noctuidae: ‘Aletiacyanopetra; ‘A.probenota (not distinguished from ‘A.’ obsecrata); Ichneutica homerica (not distinguished from holotype of I. cana, but an undescribed species is often called cana in collections); Meterana coctilis (not distinguished from M. praesignis); M. badia (not distinguished from M. inchoata).

3. Species for which no known specimen survives, and which have never been recognised since their original description: Hepialidae: ‘Porinamairi; Geometridae: ‘Hydriomena’ iolanthe.

Some of these missing species are represented on the type specimens image database.