Tiger and Lichen Moths

Subfamily Arctiinae (formerly a family)

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dogbane tiger moth
The dogbane tiger moth produces a series of clicks as potentially attacking bats approach, letting them know that they won’t be very tasty meal.
Frank Nelson
Other Common Name
Arctiids; Leopard Moths; Wasp Moths; Footman Moths
Family

Erebidae (tiger, lichen, tussock, and underwing moths)

Description

Arctiids — tiger and lichen moths, and their close relatives — are small to medium-sized moths that normally perch with their wings held rooflike over their bodies. Many are white, yellow, orange, red, and/or black, often in bold patterns: wide bands, tiger-like stripes, leopard-like spots, and so on. Some are wasp mimics. Others have more muted colors and patterns.

Arctiids used to be considered a family, Arctiidae — but now they’ve been reclassified as a subfamily, Arctiinae (with an n) in a newly created family, the Erebidae.

About 60 species have been recorded for Missouri , including the Isabella tiger moth (whose caterpillars are the famous woolly bears), acrea moth, fall webworm, great leopard moth, calico moth, yellow-collared scape moth, and several kinds of tussock and tiger moths.

Many arctiid caterpillars are usually hairy (many are called woolly bears), and some have stinging hairs. If you are unsure about an identification, or about your sensitivity to possible skin-irritating toxins, you should not touch any fuzzy caterpillars with bare skin.

The caterpillars of several species of lichen moths are camouflaged with texture and colors to look like the lichens upon which they feed.

Some species in the Arctiinae are called “tussock moths” because their caterpillars have clumps of longer hairs protruding amid the shorter ones. Note there is another subfamily in the Erebidae called the “true” tussock moths. It is confusing, but those “true” tussock moths, in subfamily Lymantriinae, used to be in their own family just as tiger and lichen moths did, and the groups are now joined in the new erebid family. Both groups share the  “tussock” name because both can have caterpillars with the clumps of protruding, longer hairs.

Size

Wingspan: ½–3 inches; varies with species.

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Photo of a Banded Tiger Moth
Banded Tiger Moth
Although moths are stereotypically drab, the banded tiger moth, like other tiger moths, are quite colorful and attractive.

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Photo of a giant leopard moth resting on a weathered wooden board
Giant Leopard Moth
The giant leopard moth is one of several white tiger moth species with striking black spotted patterns.

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Photo of an Isabella Tiger Moth caterpillar or Woolly Worm
Isabella Tiger Moth Caterpillar (Woolly Worm; Woolly Bear)
Caterpillars of the Isabella tiger moth are the famous “woolly bears” or “woolly worms” that people use for predicting winter severity.

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image of a Banded Tussock Moth
Banded Tussock Moth
The banded tussock moth, Halysidota tessellaris, has a distinctive checkered pattern on the wings.

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Photo of a banded tussock moth caterpillar on a leaf
Banded Tussock Moth Caterpillar
As caterpillars, banded tussock moths eat leaves of a wide variety of hardwood trees. They are in the tiger moth group.

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Photo of a Painted Lichen Moth
Painted Lichen Moth
An attractive moth associated with woodlands, the painted lichen moth has a distinctive pattern of gray stripes on the forewings.

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Photo of a Yellow-Collared Scape Moth
Yellow-Collared Scape Moth
The yellow-collared scape moth is more often “orange-collared.” And whether you think it looks more like a firefly or a wasp, it’s still a moth!

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Photo of an Isabella Tiger Moth
Isabella Tiger Moth
Forewings of adult Isabella tiger moths are yellow or tan, pointed, and often have faint lines and small dark spots. Hindwings are lighter and are orange in females. The bases of the forelegs are reddish orange.

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Milkweed tussock moth caterpillar on a leaf
Milkweed Tussock Moth Caterpillar
The milkweed tussock moth (Euchaetes egle) is a type of tiger moth. Its colorful caterpillars have hairs clumped in "tussocks" and eat milkweeds and dogbanes.

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Virginian tiger moth caterpillar on a leaf stem eating a leaf, viewed from below
Virginian Tiger Moth Caterpillar
Caterpillars of the Virginian tiger moth (Spilosoma virginica) may be white, beige, yellow, rusty, or even black. The larva of many tiger moth species are called "woolly worms" or "woolly bears."

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Agreeable tiger moth caterpillar
Agreeable Tiger Moth Caterpillar
The caterpillar of the agreeable tiger moth (Spilosoma congrua) may have yellowish bands between the segments, or they may be almost completely dark.

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Adult salt marsh moth resting on a vertical plant stem
Salt Marsh Moth (Acrea Moth)
The salt marsh moth, a type of tiger moth, is strikingly white with small black spots. Males have yellow-orange hindwings, while those of females are white.

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Banded tussock moth caterpillar on tree bark
Banded Tussock Moth Caterpillar
The clumps of tufted setae (hairs) on tussock moth caterpillars have been called lashes, hair pencils, and tussocks. Many species of caterpillars have tussocks, and their colors and arrangements are helpful for identification.
Habitat and conservation

Some arctiids are nocturnal, and some fly by day. Many are attracted to lights at night. As with other moth groups, many species have certain types of larval food plants with which they are associated. The females lay their eggs on or near these plants, and the caterpillars eat and grow on them.

Foods

Caterpillars in this family feed on a variety of woody and nonwoody plants, and several feed on lichens. Many feed on toxic plants, which render the caterpillars (and adult moths) toxic themselves. Adults of some species feed on nectar from flowers.

Distribution in Missouri

Statewide.

Status

The new family (Erebidae) that the tiger and lichen moth subfamily now belongs to joins together several additional moth groups. Many of these (such as the underwing, or catocalid moths) used to be members of the formerly huge family Noctuidae. The noctuid family continues, but minus those groups. Another distinct group, the tussock moths, are in the same situation as the tiger and lichen moths: they also used to be in their own family, but have now been reduced to a subfamily (Lymantriinae) in the new family Erebidae. These recent taxonomy revisions are confusing, but they represent a much greater clarity in our understanding of the true relationships among these animal groups.

Life cycle

The moth life cycle begins with eggs, which hatch and become caterpillars. Caterpillars eat, grow, and molt. Most overwinter as nearly grown caterpillars or in a cocoon containing caterpillar hairs. They emerge as adult moths, which mate and continue the cycle.

Human connections

One of the most famous arctiids is the Isabella tiger moth, whose caterpillar is the famous “woolly bear.” Woolly bears have a long history in folklore as a weather predictor. The relative size of the orange and black portions supposedly determines how mild or severe the winter will be. Woolly bear caterpillars are conspicuous in fall as they search for hibernation sites; they wander again in the spring as they search for suitable food plants.

Although moths are stereotypically drab, most tiger and lichen moths are quite colorful and attractive.

Ecosystem connections

Most moths are a favorite food of birds, most of which hunt moth caterpillars and adults by day, and bats, which hunt by night.

White, yellow, orange, and black colors announce the presence of inedible chemicals in many arctiid moths. Edible species gain protection by possessing similar color patterns. Warning colors defend against visual predators such as birds but are useless against bats. Arctiids, however, can hear the ultrasonic pulses of bats and take evasive action; some can emit return clicks that jam the bats’ sonar abilities.