Marsh Fern Moth

Fagitana littera (Guenée, 1852)

Fagitana littera (A Noctuid Moth)
Steve Walter

Insecta (Insects)
Noctuidae (Owlet Moths)
State Protection
Not Listed
Not listed or protected by New York State.
Federal Protection
Not Listed
State Conservation Status Rank
Critically Imperiled, Imperiled, or Vulnerable in New York - Conservation status is uncertain; could be especially vulnerable, very vulnerable, or vulnerable to disappearing from New York, due to rarity or other factors. More information is needed to assign either S1, S2 or S3.
Global Conservation Status Rank
Apparently Secure globally - Uncommon in the world but not rare; usually widespread, but may be rare in some parts of its range; possibly some cause for long-term concern due to declines or other factors.


Did you know?

Fagitana littera has been impacted by habitat loss and, in the past, by DDT spraying for mosquitoes and spongy moths.

State Ranking Justification

This species has been impacted by loss of habitat and DDT spraying in the past. There are approximately five recent localities documented for this species in southeastern New York, including Long Island. Additional populations are expected to exist, but it is unknown how many.

Short-term Trends

The short-term trends are unknown.

Long-term Trends

Historical loss of habitat, DDT spraying in the 1950s aimed at mosquitoes and spongy moths, and possibly use of modern biocides aimed at mosquitoes, likely led to the extirpation of some populations. Latham (1953) reports additional populations that were lost to annual burning of marshes. However, several decades have since passed which should have been sufficient for it to recover. This species' ability as a colonizer has enabled it to reach small artificial habitats and to recolonize after fires in southern New Jersey, and it is likely that it has rebounded on Long Island as recent records suggest.

Conservation and Management


The most immediate threat is invasive plants such as purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) and common reed (Phragmites australis), although for some acidic bogs this may not be a threat. Mosquito spraying could be a threat in New York. It is very unlikely modern spongy moth (Lymantria dispar) suppression programs would target habitats for this moth and even less likely that Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis - a bacterial control used on spongy moth caterpillars) would impact larvae in June and later. While populations near Orient, Long Island were eradicated by annual burning (Latham 1953), this is not likely to be a threat today.

Conservation Strategies and Management Practices

Recommended management includes maintaining an open habitat, control of invasive plants, and minimizing pesticide use at occupied sites. Deer will not likely negatively impact this species because of the foodplant and habitat that it occurs in.

Research Needs

Documenting the foodplants used by this species, in addition to Marsh Fern (Thelypteris palustris) would facilitate inventory. The old records from the Adirondacks require further investigation.



Fagitana littera is primarily a species of unforested wetlands such as coastal bogs, shrub swamps, and marshes. In New Jersey, this species also occurs along wet powerlines, and from New Jersey southward the species is characteristic of wet open pinelands. In northern Ohio, all four known occurrences are in bogs (Rings et al. 1992), but in Wisconsin the species is characteristic of open to shrubby wetlands in general (Ferge and Balogh 2000). From Latham's (1953) account, the main habitat near Orient, Long Island, was marshland, although he found the larva in a cranberry bog near Riverhead. The recent Columbia County collection was in a rather diverse calcareous wetland complex. It is also reported as a wetland species in Quebec (Handfield 1999). Acid bogs and calcareous fens might be the most likely places to find this species in New York, based on New Jersey and New England habitats, but it could occupy other types of unforested wetlands.

Associated Ecological Communities

  • Deep emergent marsh* (guide)
    A marsh community flooded by waters that are not subject to violent wave action. Water depths can range from 6 in to 6.6 ft (15 cm to 2 m). Water levels may fluctuate seasonally, but the substrate is rarely dry, and there is usually standing water in the fall.
  • Dwarf shrub bog* (guide)
    A wetland usually fed by rainwater or mineral-poor groundwater and dominated by short, evergreen shrubs and peat mosses. The surface of the peatland is usually hummocky, with shrubs more common on the hummocks and peat moss throughout. The water in the bog is usually nutrient-poor and acidic.
  • Medium fen* (guide)
    A wetland fed by water from springs and seeps. These waters are slightly acidic (pH values generally range from 4.5 to 6.5) and contain some dissolved minerals. Plant remains in these fens do not decompose rapidly and thus the plants in these fens usually grow on older, undecomposed plant parts of woody material, grasses, and mosses.
  • Rich graminoid fen* (guide)
    A wetland of mostly grasses usually fed by water from highly calcareous springs or seepage. These waters have high concentrations of minerals and high pH values, generally from 6.0 to 7.8. Plant remains do not decompose rapidly and these grasses usually grow on older, undecomposed plant parts.
  • Sedge meadow* (guide)
    A wet meadow community that has organic soils (muck or fibrous peat). Soils are permanently saturated and seasonally flooded. The dominant herbs must be members of the sedge family, typically of the genus Carex.
  • Shallow emergent marsh* (guide)
    A marsh meadow community that occurs on soils that are permanently saturated and seasonally flooded. This marsh is better drained than a deep emergent marsh; water depths may range from 6 in to 3.3 ft (15 cm to 1 m) during flood stages, but the water level usually drops by mid to late summer and the soil is exposed during an average year.
  • Shrub swamp* (guide)
    An inland wetland dominated by tall shrubs that occurs along the shore of a lake or river, in a wet depression or valley not associated with lakes, or as a transition zone between a marsh, fen, or bog and a swamp or upland community. Shrub swamps are very common and quite variable.

* probable association but not confirmed.


New York State Distribution

The species is probably still widespread on Long Island, with several collections since 2000. There is also one collection in Westchester County in 2007 and one in Columbia County in 1989. It is presumably also still present in the Adirondack region, but the details are unavailable. This species has not turned up recently in Albany County where it was known historically. Leonard (1926) also had records for Rye, Poughkeepsie, and the "Adirondacks". Since this species occurs in the Great Lakes region, it could also turn up in western New York.

Global Distribution

This is primarily a coastal species from Nova Scotia to central Florida, but it does extend inland across southern parts of Quebec and Ontario to Wisconsin, mostly in the Great Lakes region, but also including northwestern New Jersey, southeastern New York, and the Adirondacks. F. littera is apparently not known from central or western New York or Pennsylvania.

Best Places to See

  • Arshamomaque Preserve

Identification Comments

General Description

Please refer to a published illustration such as Handfield (1999), Rings et al. (1992), or Rockburne and Lafontaine (1976). There are no similar species in North America.

Identifying Characteristics

The Marsh Fern Moth is 16mm long, fawn-colored with forewing a clouded rusty brown along the costa and in the median area. White-edged rusty antemedial and postmedial lines are present with "7-shaped" white reniform spots. There is a white terminal line with orange fringe (Beadle and Leckie 2012).

Best Life Stage for Proper Identification

The adult is best for identification purposes. Suspected larvae should be reared to adults to confirm the species.


The adults are nocturnal. The fact they are not collected commonly anywhere suggests that, like many Noctuidae, they do not come readily to lights. However, there is no other known method to find them. The larvae apparently remain on the ferns at all times.


The only documented foodplant is Marsh Fern (Thelypteris palustris), but at least south of New York few habitats have that fern. It is not certain which other ferns are used, but Dale Schweitzer (NatureServe) suspects that Virginia Chain Fern (Woodwardia virginica) is the usual foodplant in New Jersey.

Best Time to See

Based on collection dates in Ohio, Wisconsin, and New England, the expected flight season in New York would be most of June into early July with the larvae occurring after the adults. A field collected larva pupated 4 July, suggesting the larval stage takes less than a month, and a moth emerged on 26 July (Latham 1953). Collection dates for specimens from Orient, Long Island were 4 June to 12 July for 20 specimens (Latham 1953), which is very comparable to recent literature. There may be a partial second brood in New Jersey (in July) and southward, but probably not in New York, although Latham (1953) states "published records into September". While Latham thought that the eggs might overwinter, it is much more likely that pupae do instead.

  • Reproducing
  • Larvae present and active
  • Pupae or prepupae present

The time of year you would expect to find Marsh Fern Moth reproducing, larvae present and active, and pupae or prepupae present in New York.

Marsh Fern Moth Images


Marsh Fern Moth
Fagitana littera (Guenée, 1852)

  • Kingdom Animalia
    • Phylum Arthropoda (Mandibulates)
      • Class Insecta (Insects)
        • Order Lepidoptera (Butterflies, Skippers, and Moths)
          • Family Noctuidae (Owlet Moths)

Comments on the Classification

There are no closely related or similar species in North America.

Additional Resources


Allen, T.J., J.P. Brock, and J. Glassberg. 2005. Caterpillars in the field and garden. Oxford University Press, New York. 232 pp.

Beadle, D. and S. Leckie. Peterson field guide to moths of Northeastern North America. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: New York, NY.

Brock, J. P., and K. Kaufman. 2003. Butterflies of North America. Kaufman Focus Field Guides, Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, NY 284 pp.

Ferge, L. A., and G. J. Balogh. 2000. Checklist of Wisconsin Moths (Superfamilies Drepanoidea, Geometroidea, Mimmallonoidea, Bombycoidea, Sphingoidea, and Noctuiodea). Contributions in Biology and Geology of the Milwaukee Public Museum No. 93. Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 55 pp. and one color plate.

Forbes, William T. M. 1954. Lepidoptera of New York and neighboring states part III. Cornell University Experiment Station Memoir 329.

Handfield, Louis, 1999. Le Guide des Papillons du Quebec, Scientific Version. Broquet Inc, Boucherville, Quebec, Canada, 155pp + plates.

Latham, Roy. 1953. Fagitana littera reared from a larva. Journal of the Lepidoterists' Society 7:172

Leonard, M. D. ed. 1928. A list of the insects of New York, with a list of the spiders and certain other allied groups. Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station Mem. 101. Ithaca, New York. 1121 pp.

New York Natural Heritage Program. 2024. New York Natural Heritage Program Databases. Albany, NY.

Rings, R. W., E. H. Metzler, F. J. Arnold, and D. H. Harris. 1992. The Owlet Moths of Ohio (Order Lepidoptera, family Noctuidae). Ohio Biol. Surv. Bull. New Series, Vol. 9, no. 2, vi. + 219 pp., 16 color plates.

Rockburne, E. W., and J. D. LaFontaine. 1976. The cutworm moths of Ontario and Quebec. Research Branch, Canada Department of Agriculture. Publication 1593. 164 pp.


About This Guide

This guide was authored by: Dale Schweitzer

Information for this guide was last updated on: October 4, 2022

Please cite this page as:
New York Natural Heritage Program. 2024. Online Conservation Guide for Fagitana littera. Available from: Accessed June 21, 2024.