As If 2020 Wasn’t Enough: Venomous Puss Caterpillars Have Invaded Virginia

If you are fond of walking about in the woods in Virginia, you may have seen something that appeared to be a toupee wandering by. What you have probably witnessed is the Megalopyge opercularis, typically known as a puss caterpillar.

They look as if they are a fluffy cat, although they are somewhat small. When they transform inside of a cocoon, they turn into a fuzzy moth.

You may be somewhat tempted to stroke the little caterpillar, as it does look somewhat warm and fuzzy. You have to be careful, however, because there are venomous spines below that shaggy coat. That is why they are referred to as the most dangerous caterpillar in the United States.

These little caterpillars are now invading Virginia and are being seen across the state. Previously, they were rare to the area, but experts suspect that they are in the middle of an outbreak. Just what 2020 needs, another outbreak!

The puss caterpillar is approximately 1 inch long and there are a number of varieties, including some that have wavy hair and others that have straight hair. Different colors also exist, including brown, gray, and white.

As the caterpillar shifts to its lifecycle, the appearance shifts along with it. It may look rather voluminous in the early stage but in the middle instar stage, it may appear more like many of us with a shaggy ‘do in the middle of lockdown. The fur may look friendly but in the end, you will get a painful reaction when you get hit by those venomous spines under the fur.

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Puss caterpillars as well as the moths are not typically found in Virginia. You will typically find them in Missouri, Texas, and Florida. The Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) reported on Facebook that there have been a number of sightings in Virginia.

“#SocialDistance away from this caterpillar!” they warn in the post.

“VDOF’s forest health team has received reports of the puss caterpillar in a few eastern Virginia counties… If you find the caterpillar, leave it alone and let its natural enemies control their populations – there are a number of other insects that will prey on them at different stages of their life cycle.”

A number of symptoms can occur when you come in contact with the puss caterpillar, with some being mild and others severe. Localized swelling, vomiting, and fever are included among the most common complaints. At times, more of the venom from the caterpillar may get into the skin, leading to shock and perhaps even death.

The VDOF is hopeful that natural predators of the caterpillars would keep the outbreak under control. If they continue to hear reports of injuries, there may be additional intervention necessary.

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