The Very Crazy Caterpillar

My coworkers have all figured out that I love looking at, photographing, and identifying interesting insects, so one evening this week one of them informed me about a really crazy-looking caterpillar that had been found crawling up the cistern.

It’s a Fir Tussock Moth caterpillar, Orgyia detrita.  (A second, similar species, the White-marked Tussock Moth or Orgyia leucostigma, is more common in much of the country but lacks those orange markings along the side.  According to BugGuide, the Fir Tussock Moth is the more common of the two in Florida, and I’m only an hour or so north of the Florida border.)

Apparently tussock moth larvae can feed on a wide range of plants, to the point of being pests in some places.  Since we discovered this first one, we’ve suddenly started seeing them everywhere.

The adults are drab brown little things, but man, are these caterpillars crazy.  A red clown nose with long black antler-like tufts on either side, and those four white puffs down the back!  The eye-catching shapes and colors must be a warning, because BugGuide says those hairs can cause skin irritation; when I was taking pictures I was careful to keep it on the twig rather than letting it crawl up onto my hand.  Supposedly tussock moths are found in Ohio as well but I can’t remember ever seeing anything like this before.

This one is now tucked inside a container with a supply of fresh leaves, where one of my coworkers is hoping it will spin a cocoon, which would certainly be interesting.  If it happens I’ll post more pictures.

EDIT: Oh, I nearly forgot – congratulations to the winners of the plover ID challenge.  Anne McCormack got that the first one was a Wilson’s Plover right away, and Hannah Brewster finally nailed down that the second was a Piping Plover.  Hannah is a former coworker of mine from the environmental education center in Ohio where I worked when I first started this blog, and seeing a comment from her was a pleasant surprise.

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13 thoughts on “The Very Crazy Caterpillar”

  1. Remember those guys that would dress up in fantastic feathered outfits and play the banjo in the Thanksgiving Day Parade on TV? I don’t remember what they called themselves, but doesn’t this critter remind you of them?

    1. Hi Emily – if you want to know exactly what kind of caterpillar you’ve found, you can take a photo and post it to bugguide.net. The people there have helped me identify a lot of insects. Don’t be too creeped out, they’re harmless except for the fact that some caterpillars can irritate your skin if you touch them!

  2. Thanks for identifying this. I just saw one (in Tallmadge, Ohio). Such an interesting caterpillar! Actually, after reading Rebecca’s comment, I think I found the same kind she saw – it had a tail that kind of resembled it’s antenae (dark and sticking up at an angle), but very definitely there – and not showing in your photos.

    1. Cool! I don’t think this specific species of tussock moth is found in Ohio, but there are a number of other similar-looking ones in the same genus (might also explain why yours had a tail not showing in these photos). If you’re interested in knowing these exact species you could upload a photo of yours to the ID request section of BugGuide.net. Good luck!

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