Plants and Animals

Sympistis saundersiana Saunders' sallow moth

Key Characteristics

Saunders’ sallow moth is a relatively small moth with a wingspan that ranges from 2.4 to 2.7 cm. The thorax is generally darker than rest of body and the forewings. The forewings are a patterned dark-gray with pale gray areas inside the antemedial lines that separate the basal and median areas and the subterminal area. Antemedial and postmedial lines are dark-grey to black in appearance and are expressed as two distinct lines. Diffuse black bands run across the median area. Reniform, orbicular, and claviform spots are gray and rimmed with black. Black fringe occurs at the base of the forewings with gray dashes extending from the subterminal area. The hindwings are gray, sometimes with a brown tint and a broad dark terminal band.

Status and Rank

US Status: No Status/Not Listed
State Status: SC - Special Concern (rare or uncertain; not legally protected)
Global Rank: GNR - Not ranked
State Rank: SNR - Not ranked


CountyNumber of OccurrencesYear Last Observed
Allegan 2 1995
Barry 1 2000
Jackson 2 1966
Lenawee 2 1966
Macomb 1 1966
Monroe 1 1989
Ottawa 1 1999

Information is summarized from MNFI's database of rare species and community occurrences. Data may not reflect true distribution since much of the state has not been thoroughly surveyed.


This species has a widespread distribution with seemingly patchy and isolated populations. Known occurrences extend east to Maine, west to Alberta, and south to Florida. The larvae of Saunders’ sallow moth feed on species of beardtongue (Penstemon spp.) and are active early in the summer. Since this species is reliant on Penstemon spp. it is only found in habitats containing this plant species. Most documented occurrences are from sandy open habitats such as high-quality sand barrens. Additional associated habitats include wet to mesic prairie, wet meadow, dry sand prairie, and oak barrens.

Natural Community Types

For each species, lists of natural communities were derived from review of the nearly 6,500 element occurrences in the MNFI database, in addition to herbarium label data for some taxa. In most cases, at least one specimen record exists for each listed natural community. For certain taxa, especially poorly collected or extirpated species of prairie and savanna habitats, natural community lists were derived from inferences from collection sites and habitat preferences in immediately adjacent states (particularly Indiana and Illinois). Natural communities are not listed for those species documented only from altered or ruderal habitats in Michigan, especially for taxa that occur in a variety of habitats outside of the state.

Natural communities are not listed in order of frequency of occurrence, but are rather derived from the full set of natural communities, organized by Ecological Group. In many cases, the general habitat descriptions should provide greater clarity and direction to the surveyor. In future versions of the Rare Species Explorer, we hope to incorporate natural community fidelity ranks for each taxon.

Management Recommendations

The primary threat to populations of this moth include habitat loss and modification. Many prairie habitats with populations of Penstemon spp. have been altered for agricultural or urban development. Maintaining the natural habitat of the Saunders’ sallow moth will promote the long-term viability of populations of this species. Management activities that minimize the impact on populations of Penstemon in occupied habitats are necessary. Restoration activities that mitigate the effects of habitat fragmentation, recreation use, invasive plants, altered fire regimes, and hydrology may be necessary to ensure that populations remain in occupied sites. Potential management activities include removing invasive plants to restore habitat or managing recreational activities (e.g., extensive foot traffic) to minimize soil compaction. Sources of artificial lighting in occupied habitats can attract moths away from natural habitats. Sites where this species is found to be extant should be protected and managed appropriately including maintaining healthy, viable populations of the host plants. Surveys to find additional populations and determine the status, abundance, and distribution of this species in the state are needed.

Active Period

Flight from first week of August to first week of October

Survey Methods

The best way to survey for this species is by blacklighting, a technique where a sheet is stretched across two trees or poles and an ultraviolet light is used to attract moths to the sheet. Moths can be collected directly from the sheet. Insects come to light usually in largest numbers on still, dark, cloudy nights when both temperature and humidity are high (Hessel 1954). This species is thought to be extremely rare and can be difficult to identify in the wild. It is strongly recommended that observations of this species be verified through actual specimen vouchers or by a species expert. Blacklighting for this species should occur in sandy openings, including dry sand prairies and high-quality barrens. Additional survey locations include wet meadows, wet-mesic prairies, or other habitats where Penstemon spp. is abundant.


Survey Period: From first week of August to first week of October

Time of Day: Night
Humidity: Humid
Cloud Cover: Overcast
Wind: No Wind


Survey References

  • Covell, C. A Field Guide to the Moths of Eastern North America. Peterson Field Guide Series, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, MA. 496 pp.
  • Hessel, S.A. 1954. A guide to collecting the plant boring larvae of the genus Papaipema (Noctuidae). Lepidopteran News 8:57-63.
  • Stanton, R.C., D.J. Horn, F.F. Purrington, J.W. Peacock, and E.H. Metzler. 2003. Monitoring selected arthropods. Characteristics of mixed-oak forest ecosystems in southern Ohio prior to the reintroduction of fire. General Technical Report NE-299. USDA Forest Service, Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, USA, pp. 123-138.

Technical References

  • Lafontaine, J.D., and B.C. Schmidt. 2010. Annotated check list of the Noctuoidea (Insecta, Lepidoptera) of North America north of Mexico. ZooKeys 40: 1-239.
  • Macaulay, D. 2016. Survey of Lepidoptera of the Wainwright Dunes Ecological Reserve prepared by Doug Macaulay, P. Biol.
  • NatureServe. 2019. NatureServe Explorer: An online encyclopedia of life [web application]. Version 7.1. NatureServe, Arlington, Virginia. Available
  • Sympistis saundersiana (Grote, 1876) in GBIF Secretariat (2019). GBIF Backbone Taxonomy. Checklist dataset accessed via on 2020-03-03.