Some of the animals at the Renaissance Festival today! There’s a huge emphasis on conservation, and these lovelies are all rescued animals educating the public on raptor rehab, big cat rescue, and also racing greyhound rescue. Except the caterpillar. That’s just a cool cat…erpillar.
The latest is that it’s a caterpillar, although it has some grublike characteristics… and it might be a kind of owlet moth caterpillar. I found photos of a very similar caterpillar here, and it’s an owlet, but it’s also bright red due to a parasitic nematode.
Also, thanks to inlandwest for his blue caterpillar photos.
Also known as the “puss moth” or “tree asp” (for its luxurious-looking “fur” and its extremely painful sting, respectively), Megalopyge opercularis is a deceptively cute tribble of a caterpillar found in the Eastern and Southern United States. It’s most common in Texas, but can be found along the Eastern Seaboard as far north as New Jersey.
Both the adult and juvenile forms of M. opercularis have urticating (itch-inducing) hairs on their body, much like some other caterpillar species, but the asp takes it one step further, and has clusters of venom-filled spines under its hairs.
As they most often live in popular shade trees, caterpillars occasionally lose their grip and tumble down onto unsuspecting humans just trying to have a nice day at the park. Their reproductive cycle means they’re particularly abundant in late spring/early summer and mid autumn. The sharp spines pierce the skin and automatically inject venom for as long as they’re embedded in the skin. Unlike with snakes, the caterpillars have no control over whether or not the venom is used.
Despite their relative abundance, especially in Texas and Louisiana, many doctors and first responders wouldn’t know the signs of an asp encounter if it crawled out of Donald Trump’s (clearly asp-inspired) toupee and stung them on the nose.
Most patients (but not all) experience extreme pain at the location of the sting, and that pain often radiates to the nearest lymph nodes. Swelling occurs at the sting in a raised halo, which then recedes to show the pattern of the spines on the caterpillar (lower image). While the pain rarely lasts longer than 48 hours, some patients may experience lymphadenitis (swelling of the lymph nodes) for up to a week.
So what do you do if you’re unfortunate enough to directly encounter a tree asp?
Step 1: Cellotape! Or scotch tape, whatever you call it. Take a strip of it, put it over where the asp landed/got squished/you had the bad idea to pick it up. Remove it. Repeat several times. This helps get out any spines (which can be near-invisible) stuck in the skin. Protip: This is also useful if you ever fall into a cactus. Believe me. I’d know.
Step 2: If the pain is super intense, see a doctor. Bring with them any information about the bug that you can, but maybe don’t bring the actual caterpillar unless you have a way of handling it without getting stung again. If it’s just really bad (no, seriously, these things can bring grown men to their knees), take some anti-inflammatory drugs (such as ibuprofen or tylenol), some anti-histamines, or both.
Step 3: Wait. Sorry bud, this next day or two is gonna suck. Ice the area if you want, to numb it up. Have a beer. Eat some ice cream. Watch a movie. Try not to think about it.
If you have any trouble breathing or seeing or any other serious symptoms go directly to the emergency room. Tell them what stung you. They might not know what to do off the top of their head, but they have resources!
It sounds like the nightmarish reveal from the end of a terrifying tale written by Edgar Allan Poe himself. Robert Palmer of Toule, WA recently found a caterpillar that appears to have Poe’s own dread-filled face on its back. He spotted it on the side of a water trough while he was giving his horse a drink.
“My first thought was to crush it with my cane, then I thought, no, it looks so strange, I’m going to take a picture of it,” said Palmer. “I’ve sent the picture to OMSI, the Portland Zoo, Fish & Wildlife, the Extension Serivce, The Master Gardeners. People either don’t respond or don’t know what kind it is. Some people aren’t taking this very seriously.”
“I sent a picture to my grandson, he said ‘nice photo-shop grandpa’. I said I can’t even use my smart phone half the time, much less do some special computer effects. I had to have the girls at the Shell station send the picture to KATU. He knows I wouldn’t lie about this.”
Does this caterpillar really have Poe’s face on its back? We actually don’t care if it does turn out to be a Photoshop prank because the very idea of Poe either being reincarnated as a caterpillar or simply peering out through an inter-dimensional portal on its fuzzy back is brilliant. We can’t help but think that Poe himself would be impressed.