Caterpillars on Campus During Spring Season
As you may already know, caterpillars are the immature stages of moths. They will be around for the next couple of weeks (April/May), and then will disappear from direct view. The caterpillars seen on campus live in the trees, mostly in the oaks, where they feed on the leaves. They occasionally fall out of the trees, and can be seen wandering almost anywhere. Sometimes you see them in large aggregates on the twigs or on the trunks where they may be resting in the daytime.
There are three species which are abundant on our campus. Two of them are harmless, the third can cause skin irritation if mishandled. None are "poisonous" in the sense of a black widow spider or a rattlesnake. The two harmless species are the tussock moth caterpillar and the eastern tent caterpillar, the third is the buck moth caterpillar. I've taken pictures to help in distinguishing the three. The first picture is the harmless tussock moth caterpillar. Notice the long pencil-like tufts pointing forward and arising just behind the red head, and the row of four short white bristle-like tufts on the back. The second picture shows an aggregate mass of forest tent caterpillars. These are also completely harmless. Notice the row of white spots down their backs lined with blue on either side, and their fuzzy appearance.
The third picture shows the buck moth caterpillar. Notice its black overall color, the brownish tufts, and the rows of sharp thorny-looking branched spines. STAY CLEAR OF THESE. They will cause a temporary burning sensation if their spines prick your skin. If one should fall out of a tree and land on you, gently flick it away with your fingernails. Do not pick it up, or crush it, or brush it away with the palm of your hand. See pictures of these caterpillars HERE.
-Dr. Peter Martinat
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