New Jersey Moths: The Toothed Phigalia - A true winter moth with an interesting historical connection to New Jersey

The Toothed Phigalia moth, a true winter moth.
Photos courtesy of David Moskowitz

by David Moskowitz

January is the month when those of us addicted to moths begin to really have serious withdrawal. It is the time of year when there is virtually nothing on the wing and we check around lights mostly in vain. Despite all the winter behind us, spring and with it lots of moths, still seems a long way off. Soon enough, pitchers and catchers will report to spring training, the maple buds will begin to swell, skunk cabbage will poke through the muck, sugar maple sap will flow and the first red-winged blackbirds will be seen. But for now, these all feel distant.

Fortunately, there is one moth that is a true denizen of winter, the Toothed Phigalia (Phigalia denticulata). This quarter-sized moth with its heavily patterned gray and brownish wings flies from October to April in New Jersey, the complete opposite of most of our moths. There is obviously an evolutionary advantage it has found to fly in the winter. I tried to find some research on this but didn’t have any luck, so if I had to guess why, it is likely related to diminished predators. But for whatever reason it has evolved to fly in the winter, it is a welcome sight for anyone that needs a moth fix on the cold, short mothless days of January.

The Toothed Phigalia gets its name from the wavy black "toothed" lines on the wings.

The males are often attracted to lights on moderately mild nights in the winter when temperatures get into the 40’s.  They often stay put on walls beneath them during the day and can be easily observed or photographed. If you find one, check out the rich pattern of wavy black lines and mottles on the ash gray and brownish background. Both the “Toothed” part of the common name and the Latin species name “denticulata” refer to the wavy black “toothed” lines. The Toothed Phigalia isn’t super showy, but they do the job when not much else is around.
While looking for information about the Toothed Phigalia, I found that it has an interesting historical tie to New Jersey, at least indirectly. The species was described in 1900 by the Reverend Dr. George Duryea Hulst. According to Wikipedia and other online sources, Hulst received his undergraduate degree from Rutgers College in 1866, became an ordained minister at the New Brunswick Theological Seminary in 1869 and then obtained a PhD from Rutgers in 1891. He served as the Pastor of the South Bushwick Reformed Church in Brooklyn, New York from 1869 until his death in 1900. But this in only part of the story.  

George Hulst.

According to an obituary published in the Journal of the New York Entomological Society shortly after his death in December 1900 and the Rutgers Entomology website, Dr. Hulst was actually one of the early pillars of entomology in New Jersey. Among his many entomological achievements, Dr. Hulst created the Rutgers Entomology Department, was the first Professor of Entomology there, was the New Jersey State Entomologist, was a member of many entomological societies, published widely and was an expert on the Geometrid moths (of which the Toothed Phigalia is one). It was this expertise that led to his describing and naming the Toothed Phigalia moth from a specimen apparently collected in Texas. The description of this new species was actually published after his death and ironically in the same Journal that had his obituary (New Species of Lepidoptera, Journal of the New York Entomological 1900. Vol IIIV: pp 215-225).

Dr. Hulst also donated much of his extensive insect collection to the Rutgers Insect Collection, where there are still likely many of his specimens carefully curated along with another 200,000 other specimens. This collection is the largest repository of insects from New Jersey and is well worth a visit

Keep an eye out this winter for the Toothed Phigalia moth with its richly patterned wings, unusual winter ecology and interesting historical ties to New Jersey entomology.          

Dave Moskowitz is Senior Vice President with EcolSciences, Inc., President of the Non-Profit Friends of the East Brunswick Environmental Commission and Co-founder of National Moth Week. Consider participating in National Moth Week next summer. 

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