New Zealand has a poor butterfly fauna with only 24 species currently recognised, of which only 13 are native, the rest being introductions or immigrants. However, there are well over 1650 species of moths, and of these, approximately 85% are endemic to New Zealand. Many of these moth species fly by day, especially those occurring at higher altitudes and in cooler climates in the south of New Zealand. The majority, however, are chiefly or exclusively nocturnal, and less readily observed. But with such diversity, even at the local scale (for example, 700 species are known from the Auckland district alone), moths form a highly significant component of terrestrial habitats. They are ecologically significant as pollinators, as prey for native and introduced spiders and birds and in their immature stages as hosts for parasitoids, especially ichneumonoid and chalcidoid wasps (Hymenoptera) and tachinid flies (Diptera). The larvae of a few species are occasional pests of horticultural and other crops. Exotic moth species, mostly from Australia, become established in New Zealand every few years. Being able to identify moths and monitor their abundance is essential to understanding changes to the New Zealand environment. And moths are often surprisingly beautiful, as the pictures on this website aim to show, so capturing and identifying them can also be exciting, educational and rewarding.
The goal of this online guide is to allow anyone in New Zealand to identify the larger moths they may encounter anywhere in the country. With experience, it can be used to build up local lists of moths for reserves, restoration plots, gardens or any other area of interest. See ‘How to Use this Guide’.
Moth identification in New Zealand is hampered by the lack of coverage in available field-guides. The only comprehensive, fully illustrated account is that of G.V. Hudson in his ‘Butterflies and Moths of New Zealand’ and its Supplement (Hudson 1928, 1939). These two volumes are now rare and expensive and very out of date (many names have changed, and new species have been described). Hudson’s beautiful coloured illustrations vary in their scientific accuracy, and sometimes it is hard to recognise a moth from his painting alone. Field-guides published since Hudson’s day (e.g., Crowe 2002), though often useful, depict only a rather small proportion of the moth fauna, and omit even some common and conspicuous species.
In fact, it would be highly impractical to produce a modern equivalent to Hudson’s work. A major problem is that we are still a long way from understanding the true diversity of the moth fauna of New Zealand, because detailed up-to-date taxonomic studies of most groups have not been undertaken. In effect, this means that we do not know for certain what species some of the older scientific names refer to, or whether certain groups of variable and similar-looking populations of moths from different localities represent one species or several. Many new, unnamed species await formal description, a time-consuming process. The result is that even ‘experts’ are unable confidently to put a name to many New Zealand moths! The problem is particularly acute with the smaller moths, the so-called ‘Microlepidoptera’. Identifying these is a specialised task even in countries (e.g., the U.K.) with well understood faunas, and more so in New Zealand, where many of the smaller moths have never been critically studied by modern methods. This website therefore deals only with the better (but still incompletely) known ‘macro-moths’ (i.e., the moth families listed below). In general, this means all the more conspicuous, broad-winged moths most likely to attract attention. For these ‘macro-moths’ this website will be a near-comprehensive guide. However, we have not included undescribed species at this stage. In practice, since most unnamed species are rare and local (many are restricted to the Alpine zone of the South Island), they are unlikely to be encountered by most people.
A hard-copy Field Guide to Larger Moths of New Zealand is in preparation by Alan Emmerson, Robert Hoare and Birgit Rhode; it is intended that this will be fully comprehensive in its coverage of the families included on the website. It will also show a greater range of variation for the very variable species (e.g. Cleora scriptaria, Declana floccosa) than can be shown here. This web-guide is a precursor and online companion to the planned Field Guide.
The images in this online Guide are of pinned moths with their forewings and hindwings spread in the standard position for museum specimens. When alive, most moth species rest with their hindwings concealed under the forewings, so initially some difficulty may be encountered in reconciling the appearance of the live specimen with these photos. However, if the moth can be captured in a transparent container and the forewing lined up so that it corresponds with the orientation in the photograph, comparison should be made relatively easy.
For the relatively few species where the hindwing shows important identification features, it may be possible to push the forewing gently forward with (e.g.) the point of a pencil to reveal the hindwing pattern. This is best done with a moth that is quiescent; refrigeration of the moth in its container for an hour or even overnight will do it no harm and make it easier to examine in this manner. As a general rule, the larger-bodied a moth is, the less it is likely to fly away when accorded such treatment!
(The gallery has been created from pinned specimens partly because this shows the full upperside colour pattern, and partly because to obtain excellent photographs of all New Zealand’s larger moth species live in the field would be the work of several lifetimes.)
Caution: There are MANY moth species in New Zealand. Some are very similar to one another, so it is necessary to exercise care in using this photographic guide. Look carefully at all the possible matches you can find in the gallery, but allow for variation in colour pattern. Only with experience will you get to know the range of variation exhibited by some of our commoner moths and be able to recognise them in all their various guises.
It is always good to take a photograph as a voucher, if the moth is thought to be something unusual or interesting. In some cases, it may even be advisable to collect a specimen, provided one has permission to collect from the landowner and/or other relevant authority, and collecting is undertaken in a responsible and ethical manner (see, e.g. Guidelines prepared by the Lepidopterists’ Society (USA)): http://butterflywebsite.com/Articles/collect.html ).
Short instructional videos relating to collecting and preparing moth specimens for study can be found at these sites:
All images have been taken and edited by Birgit Rhode from specimens selected by Alan Emmerson and Robert Hoare. All specimens are in the Synoptic Lepidoptera Collection in NZAC, unless otherwise indicated (see Acknowledgements, below).
The catalogue of New Zealand Lepidoptera published by Dugdale (1988: Fauna of New Zealand 14) provides a more detailed inventory of the fauna, including nomenclature (scientific names and associated bibliographic information), primary type repositories, additional notes, and a key to Lepidoptera families. The inventory of names has been updated by Hoare (2010: New Zealand Inventory of Biodiversity vol. 2, ed. D. Gordon, pp. 457-465), but further changes are likely in view of current revisionary work on Noctuidae. These will be incorporated into this website as they occur.
Private Bag 92170, Auckland
Supported with funding from the Department of Conservation - Te Papa Atawhai TFBIS* programme (Project 225, April 2009 - March 2012) and Landcare Research - Manaaki Whenua MSI* programme" Defining New Zealand's Land Biota" (2009 - present).
*MSI = Ministry of Science and Innovation. TFBIS = Terrestrial and Freshwater Biodiversity Information System.