What the Devil Was That?!
Updated: Jan 16, 2019
Have you ever been victim to working in your garden and suddenly get a powerful reminder you are not alone? The culprit unknown and you end up spending an hour looking for something to avoid with no luck; the only thing you see a really stunning caterpillar.
Teufelskatz are not as uncommon as the German word appears. The Megalopyge operculis, ‘puss caterpillar’, ‘perrito’ or adult Southern flannel moth translates informally, if not literally, to a big butt with a trap door (insert giggle). The latter operculus refers to the cocoon, but having seen both stages in the pictures included here, the name is apt, wouldn’t you say? The puss caterpillar is one of the most venomous caterpillars found in North America and causes a fierce sting that is often accompanied by nausea, vomiting, in-tense abdominal distress, and in extreme cases, shock. So don’t let this fur baby fool you, under that soft ‘wool’ are piercing tubules waiting to give you more than a warning.
While wandering around natural spaces next take time, and extreme caution, to look at not only this novel critter but other venomous caterpillars that have been found here. Caterpillars are mere eating machines not unlike the initial blastomere of a human fetus having an anus and mouth first and foremost - ask me a funny joke about this later. Unlike the human fetus that is nicely tucked away in a womb, the caterpillar is completely naked and afraid. So afraid in many circumstances these caterpillars take things into their own crochets and have adapted to having an insurance plan. Caterpillars can be as harmless as to appear as bird poop or a rotting leaf, have caretaker partner ant nannies, be bitter and unpalatable, cause a stomach ache not to be forgotten by would be predators, or as with the subject of this piece, a sting in their ever changing tale.
Caterpillars are fascinating and enjoyably diverting to learn to identify but learning how to identify these highlighted Sanctuary companions might serve you better than others. In the midst of the Sanctuary you will also find the Saddleback caterpillar, Acharia stimulea, or slug moth on a good number of host trees and shrubs. This caterpillar has a brilliant green saddle blanket with a small, brown, English saddle in the middle of the ‘back’. Like other stinging caterpillars the saddleback caterpillar has urticating hairs — hollow bristles that contain toxins from poison-gland cells, to ward off predators. Beautiful and dangerous the sting of the saddleback can cause similar symptoms as the ‘devil cat’ with far less severity.
Now the Io moth caterpillar, Automeris io, can be found in clusters or long trains most often in the caterpillar form and could be mistaken perhaps as lichen or reindeer moss without looking close. The bristles on the io cat are bright green as well and have a branching, coral form that covers the entirety of the caterpillar. As the caterpillar ages it is more often found feeding solo on a variety of our common plants including willows, redbud, and blackberries.
This summer add caterpillars to your ID fun while you are outside. Take PX3’s Caterpillars to Butterflies to get the scoop on how to look for, identify and know who can be touched and those to avoid. Remember, don’t let the appearance of flannel fool you, look with your eyes and not your hands.