To test its phylogenetic utility, nucleotide sequence variation in a 1,240-bp fragment of the elongation factor-1 alpha (EF-1 alpha) gene was examined in 49 moth species representing the major groups of the superfamily Noctuoidea. Both parsimony and distance analyses supported the monophyly of nearly all groups for which there are clear morphological synapomorphies. Clades of subfamily rank and lower, probably mid-Tertiary and younger, were strongly supported. The third codon position contains 88% of variable sites, and approaches saturation at approximately 20% sequence divergence, possibly due to among-site rate heterogeneity and composition bias; higher divergences occur only in association with shifts in composition. Surprisingly, the few nonsynonymous changes appear no more phylogenetically reliable than synonymous changes. Signal strength for basal divergences is weak and fails to improve with character weighting; thus, dense taxon sampling is probably needed for strong inference from EF-1 alpha regarding deeper splits in Noctuoidea (probably early Tertiary). EF-1 alpha synonymous changes show promise for phylogeny reconstruction within Noctuidae and other groups of Tertiary age.