Owlet Moths

Noctuidae. Spanish: Pájaros nocturnas (General). Millers.

This is the most familiar and the largest family of moths; yet it is poorly known in Latin America, and many species await discovery. For this reason, the number of species can only be guessed at about 10,000. They form a varied assemblage, occurring throughout all the geographic regions and in most habitat types. The majority are nocturnal and are usually seen when they come to artificial lights.

Most are medium-sized (WS 2—4 cm) and cryptically marked like bark or stones in drab browns, grays, and black. The hind wings are often unlike the fore wings, usually monocolorous, often translucent, but highly colored in some ("underwings"). A relative few have brilliant colors and are diurnal (and even have eversible odoriferous glands, coremata) like wasp moths and tiger moths. The colors may have roles as warning signals or in mimicry complexes and imply possible sequestering of toxins from food plants by the larvae (e.g., in Cydosia, Erastrinae). One or two small circular or kidney-shaped spots are often present in the center of the fore wings. Some nocturnal species have gaudy colors, which no doubt protect them aposematically or cryptically when they are at rest during the day. When folded, the wings are ordinarily held rooflike over the body, but some repose with wings flat on the substrate to the sides or even closely appressed over the back like those of a butterfly.

The wings are relatively small in proportion to the robust body. The antennae are simple and filiform, and the proboscis is normally fully developed. The first two veins in the hind wing which are fused at the base only for a short distance before continuing separately to the outer wing margin also serve to identify these moths.

The larvae of many family members are agricultural pests. These are the so-called cutworms (cortadores, roscas, tierreros) that clip young plants off near ground level, the "loopers" (medidores) that inch along with an arching of the body and eat the leaves of vegetable crops, the "army-worms" (orugas militar, largartas militar), and the "fruit worms" and "leaf worms" that consume fruits and leaves (trepadores) generally. Some are "borers" (barrenadores, brocas) in fruits and other plant tissues.

Generally, the larvae are smooth and naked (a few are hairy) and drably colored, except for contrasting longitudinal lines or stripes. Aside from the loopers, which have only three pairs, all have five pairs of abdominal walking legs. Pupation usually takes place in the soil or among ground litter, in a simple cell without silk lining or cocoon.

The closely related forester moths (Agaristidae) are mostly diurnal and colorful mimetic moths. In addition to the venational features (see mimetic moths), their antenna has a terminal club, often with a curved prolongation. Their larvae are hairy and feed mostly on plants in the families Vitaceae and Onagraceae.

Cutworms and Armyworms

Noctuidae. Spanish: Gusanos de tierra, cuncunillas (Chile); tierreros (Central America).

The larvae of many owlet moths pass the day just below the ground surface or secreted among leaves or other litter. They emerge at night to feed on young plants, which they bring down by cutting them off neatly near the base. They are catholic in their tastes and destroy a wide variety of vegetable crops. Generally, they eat both wild and cultivated plants and may survive on the former near fields during fallow periods, ready to move into new plantings soon after they begin to grow. Those that have a special affinity for grasses and that may invade crops in massive marching hoards are the armyworms. When disturbed, these larvae customarily curl up, with the head tucked inside, and lie on one side, playing dead.

The more important species in Latin America from the agricultural standpoint are discussed in the next few sections. It will not be possible to identify them with surety from the descriptions because of the many similar relatives in the same or other genera, such as Euxoa, Mamestra, Polia, Prodenia, and Mods (Valencia and Valdivia 1973).


Valencia, L., and R. Valdivia. 1973. Noctui-deos del Valle de lea, sus plantas hospederas y enemigos naturales. Rev. Peruana Entomol. 16: 94-101.

Figure 10.7 OWLET MOTHS (NOCTUIDAE). (a) Variegated cutworm (Peridroma saucia). (b) Variegated cutworm, larva, (c) Granulate cutworm (Agrotis subterranea). (d) Armyworm (Pseudaletia unipuncta). (e) Armyworm, larva, (f) Beet armyworm (Spodoptera exigua).

Variegated Cutworm

Noctuidae, Agrotinae, Peridroma saucia.

In the adult of this large (WS 4—5.2 cm) cutworm, the fore wing is generally medium brown and marked with paired transverse lines, these abruptly darkened where they contact the anterior margin (fig. 10.7a). There are also faint, inner circular and outer kidney-shaped spots just forward of the wing's center.

The larva (fig. 10.7b) is identified by distinct pale yellow dots on the midline of the back of most segments and frequently by a W-shaped, dark mark on the back of the eighth abdominal segment. It prefers garden crops and greenhouse plants as well as the foliage, buds, and fruits of various trees, vines, and ornamentals. It may break out in phenomenal numbers. The species is a pest generally over most of Latin America.

Agrotis Cutworms

Noctuidae, Agrotinae, Agrotis ( = Feltia) malefida, ipsilon, and subterranea. Spanish: Cachazudos (Cuba, Central America), caballadas (Peru). Portuguese: Lagartas roscas (Brazil).

This is a complex of three closely similar species: the black (or greasy) cutworm (gusano cortador negro, gusano trozador, tie-rrero) = A. ipsilon); the pale-sided cutworm (gusano cortador costado claro) = A. malefida; and the granulate cutworm (gusano cortador cuerudo) = A. subterranea.

The adults of all have fairly long fore wings with distinct round and kidney-shaped spots. The spots are connected by a black bar in Agrotis subterranea (fig. 10.7c); in A. malefida, the spots are separate but the inner one is underscored by a black square or triangle that is lacking in A. ipsilon. A. ipsilon also has strong zigzagging lines outside the kidney-shaped spot which are lacking or obscure in the other species. These species differ in size also: A. subterranea is the smallest (WS 4 cm), A. malefida is slightly larger (WS 4.5 cm), and A. ipsilon is the largest (WS 5 cm).

The larvae are also very nearly the same—pale, dirty gray cutworms with numerous fine granules on the skin. That of A. ipsilon tends to have darker sides and a greasy appearance. In all, the head has a reticulate pattern on the sides and is darkly barred on the front on either side of the median, triangular plate. Hosts are cotton, tobacco, corn, and many other field crops and greenhouse plants.

These species range throughout practically all agricultural areas of Latin America.


Noctuidae, Hadeninae, Pseudaletia unipuncta. Spanish: Gusano soldado. Portuguese: Lagarta do trigo (Brazil).

The moderate-sized (WS 3.5-4.7) adult of this leaf worm (fig. 10.7d) has a pale brown fore wing that is evenly colored except for scattered, minute, black flecks and a small, light spot near the center bisecting a fine black dash; a thin dark line also runs inward obliquely from the tip of the wing.

The smooth skin of the larva (fig. 10.7e) varies from bright red through pinkish (rarely) to pale or dark gray (commonly), overlain by interrupted, fine longitudinal lines and dark flecks. The head is pale greenish-brown, finely mottled with darker brown.

This is an especially injurious pest of small grains, corn, rice, and forage grasses, but the larva eats a great variety of other plants as well. Very large populations may sometimes infest fields, where the rustling sound of their feeding and movement over the ground can be heard from some distance as they move in and devour every blade in sight.

The species is wide-ranging in the Neotropics, where it is not easily distinguished from several similar but less injurious species in the genus (Franclemont 1951). It was at times placed in the genera Cirphis and Leucania (Marcovitch 1958). A related injurious species in southern Brazil and northern Argentina is Pseudaletia adultera.


Franclemont, J. G. 1951. The species of the Leucania unipuncta group, with a discussion of the generic names for the various segregates of Leucania in North America. Entomol. Soc. Wash. Proc. 53: 57-85. Marcovitch, S. 1958. Biological studies on the armyworm, Pseudaletia unipuncta (Haworth), in Tennessee (Lepidoptera: Noctuidae). Tenn. Acad. Sci. J. 33: 263-347.

Beet Armyworm

Noctuidae, Agrotinae, Spodoptera exigua. Spanish: Cogollero del maíz (Peru). Portuguese: Curuqueré dos capinzais (Brazil).

This is a smallish noctuid (WS 2 cm) with well-defined circular and kidney-shaped spots in the slender fore wing (fig. 10.7f). The circular spot has a dirty, pale yellow or yellow-orange center.

Its larva feasts on the leaves of rice, corn (cob kernels), sorghum, citrus, and many other plants. It is pale or olive green with a dark dorsal stripe bordered by a yellow stripe; the entire underhalf is pale yellow or cream.

The species ranges from northern Mexico to Nicaragua and is found on some Antillean islands whence it appears to be spreading southward (Todd and Poole 1980).


Todd, E. L., and R. W. Poole. 1980. Keys and illustrations for the armyworm moths of the noctuid genus Spodoptera Guenee from the Western Hemisphere. Entomol. Soc. Amer. Ann. 73: 722-738.

Lateral Lined Armyworm

Noctuidae, Agrotinae, Spodoptera latifascia. Spanish: Gusano cortedor de lineas laterales (General).

The fore wings of the adult of this species have a harlequin pattern of white streaks, plus a conspicuous orange (male) median patch, against a variegated brown and black smeared background. The hind wing is white. It is an average-sized owlet moth (WS 4-4.8 cm).

The larva has a more robust body and a relatively smaller head than that of other cutworms. Older larvae are black to light brown with a dorsal row of black triangular spots, diminishing toward the rear; the lateral lines are generally faint or absent. It is a day feeder, devouring young plants of cotton, skeletonizing the leaves of tobacco, and consuming many other crops, such as beans, chile, maize, and vegetables.

The species (commonly cited as Prodenia ornithogalli, actually a different species limited to the north; Comstock 1965) occurs throughout Latin America, where it is the most serious and widespread of several species of similar "armyworms" (Todd and Poole 1980). Also a general pest is the fall armyworm (gusano cogollero, pelon, lagarta do cartucho, lagarto do milho—Spodoptera frugiperda), which feeds on a wide range of crops (Andrews 1988, Peairs and Saunders 1979).


Andrews, K. L. 1988. Latin American research on Spodoptera frugiperda (Lepidoptera: Noc-tuidae). Fla. Entomol. 71: 630-653. Comstock, J. A. 1965. Ciclo biológico de Prodenia ornithogalli Guenée (Lepidoptera: Noctuidae). Inst. Biol. Univ. Nac. Autón. México, An. 36: 199-202. Peairs, F. B., and J. L. Saunders. 1979. The fall armyworm, Spodoptera frugiperda (J. E. Smith), a review. CEIBA 23: 93-113. Todd, E. L., and R. W. Poole. 1980. Keys and illustrations for the armyworm moths of the noctuid genus Spodoptera Guenée from the Western Hemisphere. Entomol. Soc. Amer. Ann. 73: 722-738.

Corn Earworm

Noctuidae, Heliothidinae Helicoverpa ( = Heliothis) zea. Spanish: Gusano del choclo, mazorquero (Peru, Chile). Portuguese: Lagarta da espiga. Cotton bollworm, tomato fruit worm, false tobacco cutworm.

This is the worm normally found esconsed in the silk of a corn cob amid a collection of feces and damaged kernels. Although a common pest of corn, the larva is omnivorous and damages the flowers and fruits of many other plants, both cultivated (tomato, cotton, peas, beans, tobacco, etc.) and wild {Malva, Malvaceae; Desmodium, Leguminosae; Ludwigia, Onagraceae; etc.).

It is a moderate-sized noctuid (WS 3.2-4.5 cm) (fig. 10.8a). The pale, creamy tan ground color of the adult fore wing is always overlain with transverse wavy lines outside of a dark spot about midway near the leading edge; the lines vary considerably in intensity from pale and obscure to dark and distinct. The hind wings are white, except for dark veins in the center and a broad dark marginal border.

Its larva (fig. 10.8b) varies from brownish-magenta to pale green, with paired dorsal dark lines and swollen black spots at the bases of the body hairs. Irregular dorsolateral and lateral pale bands are also present, delineating a wide, lateral, yellowish or cream band. The pale ground color of the head is heavily mottled with orange-brown.

The species has spread over most of Central and South America and the Greater Antilles; it is apparently absent from most of Amazonia and the extreme south of Patagonia (Hardwick 1965).


Hardwick, D. F. 1965. The corn earworm complex. Entomol. Soc. Can. Mem. 40-1-247.

Cotton Leaf Worm

Noctuidae, Catocalinae, Alabama argillacea. Spanish: Algodonero (General, larva). Portuguese: Curuquere do algodoeiro (Brazil, larva).

The adult (fig. 10.8c) of this very serious and widespread pest has reddish or clay brown fore wings. Fine, obscure, zigzag lines cross the wing perpendicularly, and a small, dark, oval spot marks the outer third near the center; the usually round and kidney-shaped spots are lacking. The hind wings are often pinkish or olive tinted. It is a little smaller than most noctuid agricultural pests (WS 3-3.5 cm).

The first pair of abdominal legs of the larva are reduced. Its body color is generally green, with or without black lines running the length of the body, the most dorsal the broadest, the more lateral ones narrower and broken.

The larva eats the leaves of cotton and is a major pest in all Latin American countries where this crop is grown (Habib 1977). It also feeds on a number of other malvaceous plants.


Habib, M. E. M. 1977. Contribution to the biology of the American cotton leafworm Alabama argillacea (Hiibner) (Lepid., Noctuidae). Zeil. Angewan. Entomol. 84: 412-418.

Figure 10.8 OWLET MOTHS (NOCTUIDAE). (a) Corn earworm (Helicoverpa zea). (b) Corn earworm, larva, (c) Cotton leaf worm (Alabama argillacea). (d) Cabbage looper (Trichoplusia ni). (e) Cabbage looper, larva, (f) Upsilon looper (Rhachiplusia ou).


Noctuidae, Plusiinae. Spanish: Agrimensores. Portuguese: Medidoras.

The first two abdominal legs are reduced or missing in the larvae of loopers, forcing them to inch along with a looping movement, arching the body upward and bringing the hindmost legs forward to meet the thoracic appendages, then reaching out with the forepart of the body to take the next step. In this respect, they resemble the caterpillars of the Geometridae, but they always retain vestigial walking legs on the third and fourth abdominal segments. Like cutworms, they are catholic in their tastes. An important general review of this group for North America, but including many species of Latin America, has been published (Eichlin and Cunningham 1978).


Eichlin, T. D., and H. B. Cunningham. 1978. The Plusiinae (Lepidoptera: Noctuidae) of America north of Mexico, emphasizing geni-talicand larval morphology. U.S. Dept. Agric., Agric. Res. Serv., Tech. Bull. 1567: 1-122.

Cabbage Looper

Noctuidae, Plusiinae, Trichoplusia ni. Spanish: Gusano medidor de la col.

The fore wing of the adult cabbage looper (Shorey et al. 1962, Sutherland and Sutherland 1972) (fig. 10.8d) is basically dull brown with complex black mottling. The usual round and kidney-shaped spots are absent but are replaced by another double spot design, the outer part of which is a small silver oval, the inner part an uneven broad, U-shaped mark. It is a smaller species among leaf worms (WS 3—3.6 cm).

The larva (fig. 10.8e) is generally green, darker on the back between lateral pale yellow or cream lines. Its first two abdominal legs are very small and peglike.

This is a ravager, particularly of cruciferous (cabbage) and composite (lettuce, etc.) plants, but it feeds on many other hosts as well among crop and ornamental plants. The species has been widely referred to as Autographa brassicae.


Shorey, H. H., L. A. Andres, and R. L. Hale, Jr. 1962. The biology of Trichoplusia ni (Lepidoptera: Noctuidae). I. Life history and behavior. Entomol. Soc. Amer. Ann. 55: 591—597. Sutherland, D. W. S., and A. V. Sutherland. 1972. A bibliography of the cabbage looper, Trichoplusia ni (Hiibner) 1800-1969. Entomol. Soc. Amer. Bull. 18: 27-45.

Upsilon Looper

Noctuidae, Plusiinae, Rachiplusia ou. Gray looper.

Resembling the cabbage looper but with a gray ground color, the portion of the fore wing of this species basal to the main transverse zigzag line is dark shaded (fig. 10.8f). The inner part of the central wing spot is shaped like a narrow, uneven "U" lying on its side, its outer part a small silver oval. The wing also exhibits a slightly iridescent sheen on the outer half. The hind wing is orange tinged. It is average-sized (WS 3.1-4.1 cm).

The larva lacks any vestige of the first two abdominal legs. Its body color is more or less pale green all over, except for narrow white or yellowish longitudinal lines, the most conspicuous running just above the spiracles. This is an omnivorous feeder found throughout Latin America, where it is injurious mostly to tobacco and clover.

The species name, often mispelled as "nu," is not to be confused with "oo," formerly used for the soybean looper (Pseu-doplusia includens), another widespread pestiferous species.

Birdwing Moths

Noctuidae, Ophiderinae, Thysania agrippina and I. zenobia. Portuguese:

Imperadores (Brazil).

Large specimens of this great moth (fig. 10.9a) have one of the greatest wingspans of any lepidopteran in the world (WS to 30 cm). Because of their immense size, their presence always fosters awe and disbelief. In flight, the insect is easily mistaken for a bird.

The fore wings are much longer than the hind wings; both are scalloped along their outer margins. The pale gray, almost white ground color is crossed by numerous diagonal wavy and zigzag dark gray lines. These lines blend with vertical crevices in the bark of trees on which the moth often rests in a horizontal position. The typical noctuid kidney-shaped and round spots are present in the fore wing but overpowered by the lined pattern. Although it is much like a saturnian in its large size, it has fine, threadlike, rather than feathery, antennae.

A related but slightly smaller (WS 11 cm) species is Zenobia's birdwing moth ('Thysania zenobia, imperador rosa, Brazil) (fig. 10.9b). Its wings are marked similarly to those of the birdwing, but males have heavy, dark bars passing through the anterior third of the fore wing parallel to the leading margin and a like bar a short distance inside the hind margin of the hind wing. The female lacks the former but possesses the latter.

Both of these moths are common forest dwellers. The latter sometimes succumbs to the wandering instinct and shows up in the southern part of the United States. Apparently nothing is known of the early stages of either species.

Black Witch

Noctuidae, Ophiderinae, Ascalapha odorata. Spanish: Mariposa de la muerte (Mexico), pirpinto de la yeta (Argentina). Nahuatl: Miquipapálotl, tepanpapalotl (Mexico). Quechua: Taparaco (Peru). Mayan: X-mahan-nail (Yucatán).

This moth (fig. 10.9c) is very common throughout the New World tropics, where it

Figure 10.9 OWLET MOTHS (NOCTUIDAE). (a) Birdwing moth (Thysania agrippina), male, (b) Zenobia's birdwing moth (Thysania zenobia), male, (c) Black witch (Ascalapha odorata), female, (d) Hieroglyphic moth (Diphthera festiva). (e) Spanish moth (Xanthopastis timais).

readily comes to house and street lights at night. It also is attracted by the odor of rotting fruit. Because of its large size (WS 20—25 cm) and dark, batlike appearance, it often attracts attention and sometimes causes alarm. It is regarded by the superstitious as a harbinger of death and is known in Mexico by the Indians since Aztec times as mariposa de la muerte, or miquipapálotl (Náhuatl: miqui = death, black; papálotl = moth), for it is believed that when there is a sickness in a house and this moth enters, the sick person dies (Hoffmann 1918). The same belief prevails in Peru. On the Yucatán Peninsula, the habit of entering buildings is the basis of the Mayan name x-mahan-nail (mahan = to borrow + nail = house).

The adults are somewhat variable in size, depending on larval nutrition. Females are larger than the males and otherwise recognizable by a generally lighter color and a contrasting, white, transverse band crossing the wings. The upper surfaces of the wings of both sexes are otherwise dark brown with fine wavy or zigzag lines and conspicuous eyespots near the leading edge of the fore wing (smaller) and at the posterior apex of the hind wing (larger and double). The body is evenly dark brown and without scale tufts. Another characteristic color feature is a violet iridescent sheen that may be seen with oblique light; this is much more noticeable in the female because of the paler ground color.

The early stages are fairly well known (Bourquin 1947; Comstock 1936). The larva at maturity is very large (BL 6 cm) and has stout proportions. It is widest at the fourth (first abdominal) segment and tapers abruptly posteriorly. The ground color is gray or gray-brown, heavily mottled with black. There is a wide, middorsal, longitudinal band of light gray that expands on the tenth (seventh abdominal) segment into a subtriangular area. There is also a broken, undulating lateral band through the spiracles. The head is black or brownish-black dorsally.

Food plants normally consist of various leguminous plants, of which the following have been recorded: Cassia fistula, Gymno-cladus dioica, Acacia decurrens, Pithecellobium unguiscate, Inga, and Samanea saman (Fa-baceae). Doubtlessly, other related genera and species will be found to host the species. The larvae feed during the night and rest during the day on the bark, usually in depressions, utilizing their cryptic pattern as protection from predators. Pupation occurs in a cocoonlike accumulation of leaves on the ground or in crotches between large tree branches.

A remarkable feature of this moth is its migratory habit. It is a strong flier and turns up in scattered localities every year in the United States where it is not known to be resident (Sala 1959). Specimens, usually worn males, appear regularly in California, Kansas, and even New York and southern Canada. Most such occurrences are in the late summer and fall (August to October) and indicate a northward movement from breeding areas in Mexico or possibly farther south. No studies have been conducted to determine migration routes. Neither is it now known whether there is a southward migration in the Northern Hemisphere, reciprocal migration at the southern end of the species' distribution, or other more complex patterns of movement within the Neotropics.

The species was known as Erebus odora in earlier literature and also as Otosema odorata (Oiticica 1962).


Bourquin, F. 1947. Metamorfosis de "Erebus odoratus" (Linné) 1758 (Lep. Het. Noctuidae). Acta Zool. Lilloana 3: 239-248. Comstock, J. 1936. Notes on the early stages of Erebus odora L. (Lepidopt.). So. Calif. Acad. Sci. Bull. 35: 95-98. Hoffmann, C. C. 1918. Las mariposas entre los antiguos Mexicanos. Cosmos 1. Oiticica, T. 1962. Nome atual da espécie P. [Halaena] Bombyx odorata Linnaeus, 1758. Mus. Nac. Rio de Janeiro Arq. 52: 137-144.

Sala, F. P. 1959. Possible migration tendencies of Erebus odora and other similar species. J. Lepidop. Soc. 13: 65—66.

Hieroglyphic Moth

Noctuidae, Ophiderinae, Diphthera festiva.

Because of its gaudy color pattern, the hieroglyphic moth (fig. 10.9d) often calls attention to itself when resting on walls near lights to which it has been attracted. The anterior half of the fore wing is basically yellow-orange with contrasting metallic blue lines marking off triangular areas; the posterior half is pale yellow, with black spots on the outer portion. It belongs to the family Noctuidae, among whose members it is of average size (WS 3.7—4.8 cm). The striped, slate blue larvae feed on various hardwood trees and sweet potato vines. They pupate in a weak cocoon made of coarse silk and plant fragments, placed in the branches of the food plant (Benjamin 1922).

The species was known formerly as Noropsis hieroglyphica.


Benjamin, F. H. 1922. Early stages of Noropsis hieroglyphica Cram. (Lepidoptera, Noctuidae). Entomol. News 33: 277-278.

Spanish Moth

Noctuidae, Hadeninae, Xanthopastis timais.

The Spanish moth (fig. 10.9e) is a very widely distributed, injurious species. The voracious larvae devastate the leaves of ornamental flowers of the family Amaryl-lidaceae (Amaryllis, Narcissus, etc.), often killing the plant (Biezanko and de Souza Guerra 1971). The caterpillars (BL 40-50 mm) are basically black but with numerous small, oval, milky white spots and with scattered tubercles (Bourquin 1935).

The adults (WS 4—4.5 mm) are easily recognized by the hairy black body and pinkish fore wing, the latter with a black triangular field anteriorly, in the center of which is a yellow spot with black markings. The hind wing is black.


Biezanko, C. M., and M. de Souza Guerra 1971. Contribuido ao estudo de Xanthopastis limáis Stoll, 1782, urna praga importante de Amarilidáceas (Lepidoptera, Heterocera, Noctuidae). Arq. Mus. Nac. Rio de Janeiro 54-267-272.

Bourquin, F. 1935. Metamorfosis de Xanthopastis timais Cr. (Lep. Noct.). Rev. Soc. Entomol. Argentina 7: 195-201.

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