February 16, 2010
The photo attached was taken February 16th 2010, in Frankston (A suburb of Melbourne, Australia). Caterpillar was feeding on a Eucalypt flowering gum tree. When disturbed the spins quickly appeared and left a stinging sensation on the skin. Can you please identify it?
Your caterpillar goes by the colorful name Chinese Junk Caterpillar because, according the the Brisbane Insect website: “of their shape and their way of moving like ship at sea.” The Chinese Junk Caterpillar, or Mottled Cup Moth, Doratifera vulnerans, is in the family Limacodidae. The Brisbane Insect website has nice images of various instars as well as the cocoon, which looks like an empty cup once the adult moth has emerged. The caterpillar is capable of stinging if carelessly handled, and apparently the spines are retractable. Your image shows the spines extended in the defensive position. This species was included in the 1913 edition of Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary under the definition for the word “sting” with this entry: “Sting moth (Zo[“o]l.), an Australian moth (Doratifera vulnerans) whose larva is armed, at each end of the body, with four tubercles bearing powerful stinging organs.” The sting is reported to be quite painful, similar to nettles and leaving a rash. The caterpillar is also pictured on the Botanic Gardens Trust website. In North America, members of the family Limacodidae are known as Slug Moths or Slug Caterpillars, and many of them also possess stinging spines. We next searched the Australian Limacodidae page from an excellent Lepidoptera of Australia website which states: “In Australia, they are also called ‘Spitfires’, ‘Battleships’ or ‘Warships’. This is because many species of the Caterpillars carry pockets of stinging spines, which are everted when the animal is disturbed, and sting anyone accidentally brushing against a tree leaf on which it is sitting. Their shape has also given them the common name ‘Chinese Junks’. The Caterpillars are inclined to sit by day happily exposed on the leaves of their foodplant, as they have a bright warning pattern or coloration. Their shape, coloration and perhaps their slow progression has led to another of their common names: ‘Bondi Trams’.”
Thanks for your reply and information.