Moths: An introduction to some common moth families.

Adapted from Butterflies and Moths of Pakke Tiger Reserve by Sanjay Sondhi and Krushnamegh Kunte

Family: Saturniidae, Subfamily: Saturniinae (Emperor Moths)

Emperor or Silk moths are large beautiful moths, which include the largest moth in the world (by wing area)-the Atlas Moth (Attacus atlas). This moth can be more than 12 inches in size! Emperor moths have very short life spans, living only a few weeks. The adult moths do not feed and live off the energy reserves accumulated during the caterpillar stage. Male moths have large feathery antennae, which they use to locate females from more than 2 kilometres away. They readily come to light.

 attacus atlas                                                                          actiasselene saturniidae moi-bj572

Family: Sphingidae (Hawkmoths)

Hawkmoths are large-bodied, mostly nocturnal moths with long, narrow forewings. They are powerful fliers. They have a long proboscis and are fond of feeding on flower nectar, hovering in front of the flower to feed. Some of these moths migrate long distances. The caterpillars of these moths are thick-bodied, hairless and have a short tail. Some hawkmoths such as the Death’s Head Hawkmoth (Acherontia lachesis) let out squeaks when caught.     


Family: Eupterotidae (Monkey Moths)

Large, dull brown or yellow nocturnal moths with a clumsy flight. Though superficially like the Saturniids, they do not have bright colours or markings. Male moths have  large feathery antennae. They do not feed as adults. When handled, they act as though they are dead! They readily come to light.


Family: Cossidae (Leopard and Goat Moths)

Nocturnal moths that do not feed as adults, and readily come to lights. Goat moths are called so because their caterpillar droppings’ have a goat-like smell. Their larvae live in trees and take 3 to 5 years to pupate.


Family: Geometridae (Geometers)

One of the largest moth families. Geometer moths are mostly nocturnal (though some are day flying), and readily attracted to light. They sit with their wings flat, with both fore and hind wings being visible, generally with their antennae aligned with the forewing margin. In Greek, the word “Geometer” means “earth measurer” and the family name of these moths is attributed to their caterpillar’s peculiar looping walk which makes them seem like they are measuring the distance they walk! The caterpillars are also called loopers or inchworms. 


Family: Uraniidae (Swallowtail moths)

These are either day- or night-flying moths. They can range from small to very large in size with broad wings. Many of them have tailed hindwings and appear to be similar to swallowtail butterflies; hence their common name. They have a functional proboscis and sit with their wings rolled or flat, but never in a roof-like arrangement.
A unique taxonomically important feature is the sexual dimorphism of the location and shape of the hearing (tympanal) organs. 


Family: Notodontidae (Prominent Moths)

These are nocturnal, non-feeding moths. Many of these moths have a prominent tuft on the inner edge of the forewing; hence they are called prominent moths. 

 Syntipistis comatus male                                                                               

Family: Erebidae Subfamily : Arctiinae (Tiger moths)

This moth subfamily includes tiger moths and footman moths, which are mostly nocturnal. Tiger moths are brightly coloured, and distasteful to predators. Some species produce a foul-smelling frothy secretion from glands near the head when threatened. Many tiger moths emit clicking sounds to confuse bats, their primary predators. Footman moths are generally smaller and sit with their wings folded over the body, in a somewhat cylindrical shape. 


Family: Erebidae Subfamily : Aganainae (Asotas and Neocheras) 

This moth subfamily has moderate-sized colourful moths and are often aposematic with toxic hostplants consisting of lactiferous plant families. They are nocturnal and diurnal species and can be seen at light traps. They have functional mouthparts and can be seen feeding on flowers or other sources of moisture.


Family: Erebidae Subfamily:Erebinae, Tribe: Catocalini (Owl, Owlet and Fruit Piercing Moths)

This is a large group of largely nocturnal moths, many of which like to feed on rotting fruit. They are readily attracted to sugar syrup and wine-soaked ropes. Many of these moths have owl-like markings on their wings and hence are called Owl or Owlet moths. The fruit piercing moths have sharp spines on their proboscis that allow them to pierce both raw and ripe fruit. The larvae and adults of fruit piercing moths cause considerable damage to commercial fruit crops.


Family: Erebidae Subfamily : Lymantriinae (Tussock Moths)  

Tussock moths are largely nocturnal moths that do not feed as adults. The moths, and their caterpillars have tufts like shaving brushes hence their common name. The word “lymantria” means “defiler” as the moths are defoliators of many tree species.



Family: Pyralidae (Snout Moths)

Small-sized moths with a protruding snout, giving them their common name.


Family: Crambidae (Grass moths)  

Small-sized moths whose larvae are typically stem-borers in many species of grass; hence they are called grass moths. They have antennae longer than the length of the forewing and often sit with the antennae folded behind the body.


Family: Lasiocampidae (Lappet, Egar and Snout moths)

These non-feeding moths have a typical resting posture wherein the hind wings are held flat on the sitting surface in front of the forewings. Many have a pointed snout. Their caterpillars are large and hairy.


Family: Zygaenidae (Burnet and Forester Moths)

Burnet and Forester moths are brightly coloured day-flying moths, often with clubbed antennae. Many species mimic butterflies and are distasteful to predators. 


Family: Limacodidae (Slug Moths)

The caterpillars of these moths have a slug-like appearance, hence their common name. Caterpillars of many species have spines that can cause itching. Many moths of this family sit with their abdomen raised at 90° angle to its wings.


Page citation

Sondhi, S., Sondhi. Y. Singh R. 2024. Moths: An introduction to some common moth families. . In Sondhi, S., Y. Sondhi, R.P. Singh, P. Roy and K. Kunte (Chief Editors). Butterflies of India, v. 3.71. Indian Foundation for Butterflies.