Which Of These Caterpillars, Found Throughout The Southeastern U.S., Is Covered In Stinging Hairs?
Answer: Puss Caterpillars
At some point in your life, you’ve probably seen a really fuzzy looking caterpillar, perhaps so fuzzy that you couldn’t resist touching it. Caterpillars that are the larval stages of moths, for example, are often times pretty fuzzy—“banded woolly bear” caterpillars found around the world, for example, turn into Isabella Tiger moths. Over the centuries, untold children have delighted in finding banded woolly bears in the spring and holding them in their hands for a spell before finding a suitable spot to send them on their way.
Thankfully for those children (including the former banded woolly bear catching child you may have been), banded woolly bears are not puss caterpillars, the larval stage of the southern flannel moth. The puss caterpillar is a beautiful specimen covered, as improbable as it seems, in long and luxurious looking “hair” that comes in a variety of colors like grayish white, golden brown, and dark charcoal gray (often with a streak of bright orange running longitudinally). Woe to anyone who touches the fuzzy little creature though, for those hairs (actually a hair like structure called “setae”) are a gateway to pure pain.
These fascinating caterpillars, looking more like a walking wig than anything else, are regarded as a dangerous insect because of their venomous spines. Just brushing the fine hairs on their body results in excruciating pain and prolonged contact, like letting one crawl on you or picking one up in your hands, leaves behind burns created by venom injected into your skin by thousands of little spines on each of the hairs. Those who have been “stung” by a puss caterpillar report that the pain is intense, lasts up to twelve hours, and has been described as similar to a broken bone or blunt force trauma.
There’s no medical treatment for a sting other than simply riding out the pain, but if you find yourself on the painful end of an encounter with a puss caterpillar, you can (and should) attempt to remove any remaining spines from the site of contact by applying a layer of tape (such as a square of cellophane packing tape) and ripping it off, removing the remaining spiny hairs via mechanical action.