24 August 2012

Bent-line Carpet (7416)

Costaconvexa centrostrigaria
Family Geometridae, subfamily Laurentiinae
Photograph copyright by Tony Leukering
5 July 2012
Near Whitesboro
CMMP block S07

With this installment, we go back to the large and varied family, Geometridae. As noted previously, the full-spread wing posture of the pictured beast is typical of the family and not matched by many other species, particularly among the smaller to medium-sized moths. Bent-line Carpet is a very common and widespread species, coming to lighting in small numbers, but through a very large part of the moth year. The sexes differ in appearance and, like many moth species, this one is quite individually variable in precise extent of darker coloration; all share at least the dark forewing apical patch and at least thin dark bands at the antemeridian and postmeridian lines.

The subfamily housing the carpets also houses the pugs, a group of generally small moths with very short hindwings that give them a distinctive look that allows for immediate identification as a pug. Unfortunately, that point is the last at which pugs are easy, and I may go into them in the future at this site.

09 August 2012

Faint-spotted Palthis (8398)

Palthis asopialis
Family Erebidae, subfamily Herminiinae
Photograph copyright by Tony Leukering
22 June 2012
West Cape May
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Faint-spotted Palthis is a member of the group called the litter moths, typically being found during the day roosting among the leaf litter and most of which have a strong equilateral-triangle shape. This species is yet another whose English name is not so English and is one of only two members in the genus, the other being Dark-spotted Palthis.  Oddly enough, the best distinguishing characteristic of the present species is the dark spot or patch at the apex of the forewing (inside that scooped out bit at the wingtip); Dark-spotted Palthis is orange to rufescent there.

The two members of the genus share the same odd wing posture, with that upraised kink in the forewing. This posture is, presumably, yet another adaptation that moths have derived to not look like food. The idea is that if one doesn't present the shape that all those other moths do, predators, probably avian predators in particular, will not think one is food. It also behooves a beast employing such strategy to not be too common, either in absolute abundance or in specioseness (if I may coin a term), else more birds (or whatever) might just sample the fare anyway, learning that the odd shape is also food. Indeed, while Faint-spotted Palthis is not rare, it is also apparently not all that common. Of the 100s of moths captured per night, Mike Crewe catches only a few a night in his trap (such as the one pictured here) and Sam Galick's black light brings in only the odd individual or two on any given night.

28 July 2012

Black Snout (8465)

Hypena scabra
Family Erebidae, subfamily Hypeninae
Photograph copyright by Tony Leukering
11 June 2012
Near Whitesboro
CMMP block S07

The common name provided here for this beast may sound unfamiliar to many, as it is often known by its caterpillar's name, Green Cloverworm or Green Cloverworm Moth. However, all other U. S. and Canada species in the genus that sport common names are called snouts (11 in the Beadle and Leckie guide), due to the labial palps that extend forward of the head, a feature typical of the genus. The species' appearance is wildly variable, but all individuals sport the nearly-straight line perpendicular to the inner edge of the forewing that connects to the base of the black triangle that is so prominent on this individual. Though the variability in appearance would be worth an essay here in its own right, the premise for this essay is, again, common names.

As noted previously in this venue, a large percentage of common names presented in moth field guides aimed at the layman or amateur are difficult and often not composed entirely of English words. I mean, if we're going to have "common" names such as Helcystogramma, why bother? I believe in a coherent, standardized set of common names established by some body with some sort of official standing. Ideally, common names would also be relevant in some fashion to the species or group of species and its appearance, behavior, or ecology. Finally, and most relevant to our subject species, only under certain extenuating circumstances should members of a single genus be known under different group names (such as Baltimore Snout and Green Cloverworm).

Despite the assertion by many that scientific names are more stable than are English epithets, such monikers are at least as subject to change as are common names. One excellent example of such is the moth illustrated on page 371 of the Beadle and Leckie guide called Small Characoma, a beast that now resides in the genus Garella. Yes, it was formerly in the genus Characoma, but has been saddled with a "common" name based on a genus name that no longer applies! (Note, though, that the MPG site lists a different common name.) In fact, the genus of Black Snout has been changed recently, too, with the species formerly being a member of Plathypena and with many other members of Hypena formerly belonging to Bomolocha.

19 July 2012

Aethiophysa invisalis (4877? 4878?)

Aethiophysa invisalis
Family Crambidae, subfamily Glaphyriinae
Photograph copyright by Tony Leukering
5 July 2012
Near Whitesboro
CMMP block S07

In my experience and opinion, there are two primary aspects of insect identification that scare off hobbyists from becoming seriously interested. The first (not necessarily the most important) is the lack of widely accepted common or English names for most species, once one gets out of the butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies, tiger beetles, and orthopterans (grasshoppers, crickets, katydids) and even including these groups in much of the world outside northern Europe and the U. S. and Canada. The second reason is the uncertainty of identification in groups with incredible numbers of species, many or most of which are very similar to each other and a large portion of which require close study of minutiae and, particularly, structure of sex characters. As example, the Kaufman insect guide notes that there are some 870 species of syrphid flies (Syrphidae) and that that family accounts for only about 1/20 of the 17,000+ species of flies known from North America north of Mexico. Of course, that's "known," which does not necessarily mean that that is all there are; in fact, there are almost certainly hundreds, if not thousands, of species awaiting description or, even, finding.

But, of course, this is a blog about moths, so I'll get back to the subject "species." When I first noted the subject of this essay's picture at Steve Bauer's house near Whitesboro, I knew that I had not seen the species and figured it for one of the horde of crambids (there are lot of species with triangular wings and that perch head-down in two dimensions), most of which are not illustrated in the Beadle and Leckie field guide. I rummaged around among similar crambids on the Moth Photographer's Guide (MPG) and found two species that looked very much like this beast. Unfortunately, I could not find any particular feature that separated those two species. On the record of known occurrences, I figured that the first one (Aethiophysa invisalis 4877) was the more likely of the two species to occur in New Jersey (though neither had, apparently, been recorded here). So, I submitted the above picture to both MPG and to the Butterflies and Moths of North America (BAMONA) website as the first county and state record of that species. While there has been no action on the photo at Bug Guide, which is the portal for records addition to MPG, the picture was accepted as proof of occurrence by BAMONA. However, it was accepted as Aethiophysa lentiflualis, not as Aethiophysa invisalis.

That gave me pause. Since BAMONA does not apparently utilize Hodges numbers, I cannot compare Hodges numbers between the two sites. Also, since neither site explains the nomenclatural differences and because a brief internet search got me nowhere in discovering the causes of the differences, I do not know, really, what species to which this beast is referable and why MPG does not use lentiflualis and why BAMONA does not use either invisalis nor consimilis (the other species name on MPG). Apparently, the two sites are following different authorities, but if there had been a lumping, there should be some shared name, not completely different names. So, I have no real clue what has gone on with that genus; perhaps, someone will comment with the solution.

So, we come to the real gist of this essay: uncertainty. In the birding world, given reasonable views, virtually every individual bird can be identified by those with strong skills in that vein. Thus, birders take for granted that, though an individual birder may not be able to identify an individual bird, s/he is certain that someone can make the ID. In the insect world, that is just not the case, particularly without a specimen to study. That uncertainty leads to many enthusiasts giving up on various insect groups, including moths. But, as one might have expected from the fact that I have established this blog, I would encourage those with an interest to stick to it and accept the fact that you will have a higher percentage of unknown beasts (a very much higher percentage) than you would were you a birder with a relatively similar knowledge set. And, if you had given up on moths previously in your life, give it a second chance. We know a lot more, now, about distribution than we did even a decade ago, and there are more and more-comprehensive ID resources out there than, again, even a decade ago.

11 July 2012

Catalpa Sphinx (7789)

Ceratomia catalpae
Family Sphingidae
Photograph copyright by Tony Leukering
7 July 2012
West Cape May
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With a wingspan reaching 2.75 in. (95 mm), this subtle beauty is one of the largest sphinxes and one of the county's largest moth species. The very similar Waved Sphinx (7787) can be differentiated by subtle details of forewing pattern (particularly those of the sub-terminal [ST] line), but often/usually has the reniform spot filled by white or silver, rather than gray as in Catalpa.

The alternate focus of this essay is a bit of terminology, what is termed in moths as the "reniform spot." The literal translation of "reniform" is kidney-shaped, so it may come as a surprise to many that, in the mothing world, one often finds the seemingly redundant phrase, "Reniform... kidney shaped" (couplet 3 in Eupsilia key). That is because lepidopterists have co-opted the word to note the location of a spot that is often kidney-shaped, rather than using it for its true meaning (I suppose that some bounder could make the above say, "Reniform... reniform"). The reniform spot is just distal (in the sense of toward the end and, in this case, toward the end of the wing) of the median line and close (proximal) to the leading edge of the wing (see Fig. 4 in Beadle and Leckie). The Catalpa Sphinx has an oval reniform spot outlined in black.

The beast in the picture above was nearly the first moth that Mike Crewe saw in his moth trap on the morning of 7 July, probably because of its relative immensity. Once we got it out of the trap, we let it perch on a door jamb on the interior of the mudroom closet of his house to while away the time that we dealt with all of the lesser creatures. Most of the small moths will, given the opportunity, fly away once day comes, but the large species (perhaps because they're so obvious and so loved by avian predators) usually sit tight, counting on their camouflage. Upon getting a few record pictures of the Catalpa Sphinx, we took it outside in order to get "natural" pictures, putting it on the side of Mike's big side-yard stump. After a brief photo session, we took it to a shaded spot and let it go.

[Mike Crewe photographing the Catalpa Sphinx in his side yard. Photo by Tony Leukering]

08 July 2012

Deadwood Borer (8514)

Scolecocampa liburna
Family Erebidae, subfamily Erebinae
Photograph copyright by Sam Galick
8 July 2012
Near Whitesboro
CMMP block S07

We return to the "massive assemblage" of moths in the superfamily Noctuoidea and to the large and varied family Erebidae, which occupies 38 plates in the Beadle and Leckie guide. Little is known of this species' habits and ecology, but it is suspected that the caterpillar eats fungus in decaying wood. Either Deadwood Borers are attracted only uncommonly to lights or the species is not at all common, as we have found only a few, with Sam's nice find very early this morning being the subject of this essay's photo.

One quick bit of minutiae to point out:  Don't go looking for Deadwood Borer (or Dead-wood Borer Moth; see previous comment about English nomenclature) in the index to Beadle and Leckie, at least not by the common name, as it is not indexed under any option ("Dead-wood," "Borer," or "Moth"). However, a search under the genus name will be successful. Long-and-involved indices of books usually have at least a few problems, but this is the first one that I've found in this book. I do, however, question the utility of the decision to index both the text and plate entries for every species, as they are on facing pages.

We are obviously getting into the peak of the moth season, because numbers and variety have climbed tremendously just in the past couple of weeks; I have two good examples to prove the point. The first is from this most recent night, a night that I should have found myself wandering over to Sam Galick's place (as I had on the two previous nights!). That is because Sam reports photographing some 80 or so species at his porch and black lights from dusk until the first Northern Cardinal sang near dawn.

The other example comes from Mike Crewe's moth trap. On the morning of 22 June 2012, I helped Mike go through the trap that he'd had out all the previous night, an the final tally of species from that haul is 91. I joined him again in this endeavor yesterday morning (7 July 2012). What Mike does is capture from the trap and release out the door any individuals of species that he can immediately ID, and retains all those individuals that he cannot. Obviously, the common species are the ones most readily ID'ed due to previous experience, but it was still more than surprising to me when the final tally just of Mottled Grass-veneers was 596, which outnumbered all other species combined! Me being the official scribe and tallier, at the end of the endeavor (which took quite a few hours to complete!), I tallied the number of species listed that he had released straight out of the trap: 68. So, combining that with the easily 40+ species that he photographed because he could not ID them, the final tally will certainly be well above 100. And that's from a relatively habitat-poor locations on Cape Island!

07 July 2012

Suzuki's Promolactis (1047.1)

Promalactis suzukiella
Family Oecophoridae
Photograph copyright by Tony Leukering
5 July 2012
Near Whitesboro
CMMP block S07

While one might think that this stunning creature would be easy to note, it is actually amazingly easy to overlook. That is because the largest of Suzuki's Promolactis reaches a whopping 7 mm or so (just over 1/4 in)! The new Beadle and Leckie field guide illustrates two related, tiny, orange things in this family, but not this one, probably because it is known to occupy only a small portion of the range covered by that guide.

Despite the wonderfulness of this beast, the thrust of this essay is the Hodges numbers (here, 1047.1), about which many readers may have been wondering. The Hodges numbering system was published in 1983 that gave every species known from the U. S. and Canada (at that time) a number that could be used by all and sundry when cataloging moths. As one might expect in a group that we know so poorly, an incredible amount of new information gathered since 1983 has resulted in lumps, splits, and species additions to the area of concern. Suzuki's Promolactis is one of these, hence the decimal point in the number.

Adding species to the list (either through splitting of an existing taxon or discovering a taxon new to the area or, even, to science) is not that painful. One simply puts a decimal after the closest relative of the new species found on the list and then a '1' (or '2' or '3' or whatever, depending upon how many additions have been made previously). However, because of all of these aforementioned changes, the usefulness of the Hodges numbering system has declined, in no small part due to our more-refined understanding of the relationships within and between moth families, which has seen whole-scale changes since 1983. Thus, there are few long stretches in the numbering sequence in which the numbering actually indicates relatedness.

A new system is in the process of being born, but the delivery will take quite some time, yet, to complete. This system is noted on page 20 of the Beadle and Leckie guide. Robert Patterson (a driving force behind the superb resource that is the Moth Photographer's Group website) has devised a system in which each superfamily (a hierarchical category above family, but below order) receives a two-digit number and each species a four-digit number that is combined into a hyphenated six-digit code for each species. While only one superfamily has been completed to date, that superfamily is a gigantic and incredibly variable one of macroleps that occupies about 1/2 of the Beadle and Leckie guide (pgs. 268-527)! I do not know much more about it, but expect that Robert may be pulling his hair out dealing with the microleps!