Caterpillars are well known as the leaf-eating larva of various butterflies and moths. They are a common sight in backyards all over Florida, and can even provide benefits to your garden. While these creatures may appear cute and harmless, there are actually several different species of venomous or poisonous caterpillars in Florida.
The good news is that the these caterpillars are not aggressive and do not attack. Simply not picking up or bothering the insects is the best way to keep yourself safe from their toxic stings. You should also familiarize yourself with which species can pass along poison, so you know what to look out for.
Are caterpillars poisonous or venomous?
Caterpillars can actually be both poisonous and venomous, but there is certainly a difference between the two. A poisonous caterpillar will make you sick or pass along venom if you ingest it while a venomous caterpillar can inject its venom by stinging you.
The caterpillars on this list are actually venomous and have stingers. Since most people use the terms venomous and poisonous interchangeably, we may also use the two terms in this way.
7 Poisonous Caterpillars In Florida
While the idea of running into one of the following poisonous caterpillars in Florida does sound scary, they are rarely deadly. What their stings can do, however, is cause some unpleasant and potentially painful symptoms. Keep reading to learn more about these caterpillars.
1. Puss Caterpillar
Scientific Name: Megalopyge opercularis
The puss caterpillar looks a bit adorable, with its furry-looking body. This stout caterpillar has soft brown to gray hairs covering its body. Under these hairs, however, are spines that have poison glands. These spines break off your skin, resulting in intense pain.
Puss caterpillars are the larva stage of the Southern Flannel Moth, and are most often seen on citrus and oak trees, but can also be found on a wide array of broadleaf shrubs and trees.
Stings from the puss caterpillar can result in headaches, fever, nausea, and even seizures. If your symptoms get worse, immediately seek medical attention.
2. Saddleback Caterpillar
Scientific Name: Acharia stimulea
The saddleback caterpillar is named for its unusual markings on its back, which make it look like the caterpillar is wearing a saddle. The body of the saddleback caterpillar is brown with a bright green covering bordered by white.
This green area looks similar to a saddle blanket. In the middle of this green blanket-like marking is a brown oval that looks like a saddle. The stinging hairs of this caterpillar are located on each of its sides.
The stings of a saddleback caterpillar can cause various symptoms, including a burning sensation, redness, itchiness, and inflammation. Some people, however, experience a severe reaction and may need medical attention.
3. Hag Caterpillar
Scientific Name: Phobetron pithecium
Also known as the monkey slug, the hag moth caterpillar is rather unusual-looking. Their body, which is either light or dark brown, is covered in stinging hairs.
These hairs are actually lateral spines that vary in length, and they twist and curve. This gives the caterpillar a disheveled appearance. Hog moth caterpillars are often seen feasting on oak trees, apple trees, dogwood trees, and other woody plants.
This poisonous caterpillar keeps its toxin glands at the base of its spines, and they release the poison once their spines come in contact with skin. Their sting can cause itching, stinging, inflammation, and redness.
4. Io Moth Caterpillar
Scientific Name: Automeris io
The io moth caterpillar looks similar to various other caterpillars. It has a pale green body that is lined with a red and yellowish white stripe down its body.
Its stinging spines are clustered together and extend out from the back of the caterpillar’s body. These spines are typically green or yellow in color with black tips.
Io moth caterpillars love maple trees, elm trees, willow trees, hibiscuses, and wisterias. When the io moth caterpillar stings you, its hollow spine will break off and can embed into your skin.
Once stung, you will probably feel a burning or stinging at the site, as well as itchiness, swelling, and inflammation.
5. Buck Moth Caterpillar
Scientific Name: Hemileuca maia
The buck moth caterpillar is a large caterpillar that has multi-branching spines protruding out of its back. It can be either black with white dots or white with a redhead. They love to munch on willow and oak trees.
The toxin gland of the buck moth caterpillar is located at the base of the spine. The spine will pierce the skin and then break off, which releases the toxin. The toxin can result in redness, a stinging sensation, and swelling. These symptoms can appear immediately after being stung and can last for over a week.
6. Tussock Moth Caterpillar
Scientific Name: Orgyia detrita
The tussock moth caterpillar is a small insect, measuring no more than 1 ½ inches long. These caterpillars have a dark body with orange spots and prominent antennae. They have a set of four tussocks (hairs clumped together that are longer and thicker than the other hairs on the insect) located on their abdominal segments.
Touching one of the tussock moth caterpillars is not recommended since their bodies are covered with stinging spines that can leave you feeling like you just went a round with some fiberglass.
Pain, inflammation, burning, redness, and itchiness are all symptoms associated with stings from a tussock moth caterpillar. Furthermore, the stings from these unassuming caterpillars can leave a painful rash that is hard to get rid of.
7. Spiny Oak-Slug Caterpillar
Scientific Name: Euclea delphinii
Just as its name suggests, the spiny oak-slug caterpillar is covered in protruding spines. While they can be in various colors, they all have an oval-shaped, stout body. The spiny oak-slug caterpillar feeds on oak trees, cherry trees, willow trees, and other woody plants.
The spines of this caterpillar are hollow but feature a toxic gland located at the base of the spine. Thankfully, this species of stinging caterpillar has a milder sting than the other ones on our list.
Symptoms of the spiny oak-slug caterpillar sting include a burning sensation, inflammation, and redness in the affected area.