No. 10   April 1997 


by Ebbe Nielsen & Niels P. Kristensen (Zoological Museum, Copenhagen Denmark).

   In 1973 Ian Common published a remarkable paper in which he described a new family of primitive moths endemic to Australia.  He described three species each known from one specimen or a few specimens only.  Based on morphological observations of one of these moths he concluded that the new family, Lophocoronidae, belongs to the first lineage, known as Dacnonypha, to be differentiated within the Glossata (i.e. the Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies) with a coilable proboscis).

    The Glossata comprise the 99.9% of all Lepidoptera species which have acquired the striking specialisation of having a coilable proboscis.  Within the Glossata, the basal split was for some time thought to be between Dacnonypha (containing three small families grouped together because the proboscis muscles are absent) and Myoglossata (the bulk of Lepidoptera families, characterised by the presence of intrinsic proboscis musculature, see Fig. 10).
                     Fig 10: Lophocorona pediasia, the most frequently collected species of the
                     endemic Australian family Lophocoronidae (wingspan:  13mm).

    Ian Common’s Lophocoronidae was one of these Dacnonypha families, the others being the Eriocraniidae (with over 20 species in North America, Europe, Russia, and Japan) and the Acanthopteroctetidae (a small family known from North America, the Ukraine (Crimea), and Peru).

    Common based his pioneer study on specimens collected by himself and Murray Upton in the mallee on either side of the Nullarbor Plain during 1968, and a single specimen collected on Black Mountain in Canberra in 1949.  These specimens were all collected in the late autumn and early winter.  During 1983 and 1984 E.D. Edwards and E.S. Nielsen conducted fieldwork in the mallee across South Australia and procured a sizeable amount of lophocoronid material including two new species, the first female, and material suitable for detailed morphological study.

    Based on this material we have now re-analysed (see Invertebrate Taxonomy 10: 1199–1302) the interrelationships between Lophocoronidae and the most basal glossatan families on the basis of 47 characters in integumental and soft anatomy of the adults (the immature stages and the biology of Lophocoronidae still remains unknown).  Analysis of this dataset found a single most parsimonious tree, see Fig. 11.  In this tree the Dacnonypha proved not to be a natural group but the Eriocraniidae, Acanthopteroctetidae and Lophocoronidae were shown to arise in consecutive splitting events while Myoglossata were shown to be a natural group with the same interrelationship between the groups as previously assumed.

    The phylogeny (interrelationships) shown in Fig. 11 has significant consequences for an understanding of evolution of the early Lepidoptera.  Among the most striking findings are that hollow wing-surface scales and the piercing female ovipositor were evolved only once with the piercing ovipositor subsequently lost in several lineages.  In addition, a pupa without functional mandibles has arisen twice.

Fig 11: Earlier cladogram for the Lepidoptera - Glossata (top) with a group Dacnonypha, and the revised phylogeny -(bottom) with the acquisition of some notable traits indicated; 1: piercing ovipositor, 2: hollow wing-scales and 3: adecticous pupa. AC, Acanthopteroctetidae; ER, Ericraniidae; EX, Exoporia (hepialoids and relatives); HT: Heteroneura; NE, Neopseustidae; LO, Lophocoronidae.

    This revised Lepidoptera phylogeny also has striking consequences for the conservation value ascribed to the endemic Australian Lophocoronidae.  The family is removed from its subordinate position in a widespread taxon ‘Dacnonypha’ to a distinctive lineage representing the sister-group of the entire Myoglossata (i.e. the six species of Lophocoronidae represent the sister-group of a lineage comprising probably over 300,000 species of moths and butterflies) and restricted to Australian mallee and dry sclerophyll woodlands.  We draw attention to this case as yet another example (not unlike the tuatara-Squamata story) of obviously different conservation values of different branches in the tree of life based on their taxonomic distinctiveness.  Mallee woodland has been extensively modified since European settlement in Australia through clearing and other disturbance, and the clarification of the phylogenetic position of its lophocoronid inhabitants markedly upscales the priority of conservation of this unique habitat type.

    Future priorities for the study of Australia’s unique Lophocoronidae include the following.  First, surveys to establish species distributions and whether we have additional species.  Second, life-history studies  and the identification of host plants.  Third, analysis of characters from immatures (when they are found) and molecular data to test the phylogeny based on adult morphology shown in Fig.11.


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