Parallels in the Art of Identification

Guide-lines to the Identification of the two British Copper Underwings.

There are occasions when it is seemingly impossible to identify a moth from a physical appearance. When faced with this situation, the scientific decision-making processes “kick-in” and a choice has to be made:-

1) Record the specimen as e.g. Common Rustic aug or Copper Underwing aug

2) Check out the Genitalia of the insect (that is the examination of its bits!!)

Option two is not everyone’s cup of tea! nor skill factor, nor inclination to undertake the processes involved. I for one have no real desire to do this, although it must be very interesting. Don’t get me wrong, I completely understand the science behind the processes but I am sure that there must be features on difficult moth species that are there, waiting to be discovered, we just simply haven’t found them YET,  now that’s a thought!!

There has been much debate over the identification of the two British Copper Underwings and even to-day, much work is being carried out on these two species. However there are a number of reliable theories and features that together should help to separate the two with reasonable accuracy. Certainly a combination of all the features together would achieve a reliable result. The latest moth identification guides all seem to make consistent reference to the features listed below. Some are well known and some are fairly new discoveries. So let’s take a look then at these two well known species that can be difficult to identify:-

Copper Underwing – Amphipyra pyramidea                                                                             The underside of the hindwing’s discal area is a pale straw yellow and this contrasts with both the orange-copper terminal area and the blackish-brown curved streak along the leading edge.                                                                                                                        Svensson’s Copper Underwing – Amphipyra berbera svenssoni                                   The underside of the hindwing’s discal area is suffered orange-copper with a lack of any contrast to the discal and terminal area.

                                                       Photos – Simon Roddis

Copper Underwing – Amphipyra pyramidea   (below left)                                                               The cross-line just before the middle of the forewing has four projections along it which are all typically the same length.

Svensson’s Copper Underwing – Amphipyra berbera svenssoni (below right)

The projections are similar to Copper but the two nearest to the trailing edge of the forewing protrude further out and are more pointed. 

                                                          Photos -Tony Davison & Simon Roddis.

Copper Underwing – Amphipyra pyramidea  (below left)                                                                     The upward pointing palps are completely pale

Svensson’s Copper Underwing – Amphipyra berbera svenssoni (below right)                                   The palps are dark with a pale tip

                                                           Photos – Tony Davison & Simon Roddis.

Copper Underwing – Amphipyra pyramidea  (below left)                                                                     The upper parts are brighter and more sharply defined. There is a contrasting broken post median line but a duller and darker brown cross-band towards the trailing edge of the forewing.                                                                                                                               Svensson’s Copper Underwing – Amphipyra berbera svenssoni  (below right)                                 The upper-parts are duller by comparison with Copper. There is a less contrasting post median line and a pale creamy cross-band.

                                                             Photos – Tony Davison & Simon Roddis.

Copper Underwing – Amphipyra pyramidea (below left)                                                                      The copper marking is minimal on the under hind-wing and the black & white colouring of the abdomen sides seems to be more intense                                                         Svensson’s Copper Underwing – Amphipyra berbera svenssoni  (below right)                                 The copper markings on the under hind-wing run the full length of the wing and the black & white markings on the abdomen sides are dull and less intense.

                                                           Photos – Simon Roddis.

Acknowledgements – Montgomery Moths. Simon Roddis for his superb collection of photographs.

References – British Moths and Butterflies – Chris Manley; Moths of Great Britain & Ireland – Sean Clancy, Morten Top-Jensen,Michael Fibiger; Field Guide to the Moths of Great Britain & Ireland – Waring, Townsend & Lewington. Herts & Essex Moths.

5 thoughts on “Parallels in the Art of Identification

  1. David Howdon

    As far as I am aware the current thinking is that the palps characteristic is unreliable and should not be used. The upperwing characteristics are indicative but not sufficient to allow ID on this basis alone. Only the underwing characteristics (and dissection) remain valid. A good summary of the latest thinking is in the Townsend, Clifton and Goodey guide to difficult species.

    1. Tony Davison

      Hi David thanks for your email – As I state – my article is meant as a guide. I am by no means professing to be an expert. At the end of the day this is a hobby and something which I enjoy and am merely passing on my experiences. Seems that people tend to forget that it is just a hobby, we are supposed to get enjoyment from it..

  2. Peter

    On pushing this article out to like-minded locals the following reply came back from Martin Harvey: Not entirely convinced by that article. No doubt many of the things it talks about are useful pointers to guessing which of the two species is more likely, but few of them are entirely reliable in my experience. The colour of the palps has been show to be distinctly unreliable, and it is a shame that it keeps getting trotted out again.

    I know we’d all like a nice easy way to tell these two apart, but the moths don’t co-operate! I’ve seen various claims made for the markings on the forewing topsides, some of them seemingly well-documented, e.g. this one from Germany (scroll down to the subheading “Diagnose”):

    This probably works well on well-marked, typical moths, but I’ve found it hard to be confident of my own decisions when I try to use this approach.

    The underside of the hindwing, when the wing is extended and fully visible, remains the best guide in my view.


    1. Colin Plant

      Martin said “The underside of the hindwing, when the wing is extended and fully visible, remains the best guide in my view.”.. If people could be bothered to read the literature instead of guessing they would see that this character is in fact the one originally used to separate the two species! The palp colour is a nonsense. Please remember, of course, that putting things into two groups does not mean they are different. I can arrange the long thin objects on my desk by colour, length and pointiness – but they are still a mix of biros, pencils and felt tips = 3 species! Looking at their internal organs (in this case the ink/lead column) must be done. In the same way, someone MUST confirm the validity of characters by genitalia (or DNA) of the moths and only than can you claim that the characters work!. I understand that Les Hill (Butterfly Conservation HQ in Dorset) is working on this. Please give him your support. Colin Plant (Herts & Middx Moth Recorder & Editor of “Entomologists Record & Journal of Variation” – see

    2. tonydavisonsimplybirdsandmoths

      Hi Colin, Thanks for your comments – well being one who likes to provoke discussions and debates, I really seem to have unintentionally done that here. I am by no means purporting to be an expert here. Merely passing on my experiences and discoveries. I enjoy mothing and I consider to be on a long learning curve. It is amazing that when reading the current available literature that is there for all to see, some of it seems to be wrong, but know one tells you why? If the Palp theory is rubbish, why is it in print? As yet I have read nothing to tell me why this is so? I look at Mothing as a hobby, which I thoroughly enjoy, long may it continue.. I hope I don’t upset too many people on the way!!


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