Tussock moth caterpillars are a common sight during summer months, often found on trees or foliage.
These caterpillars, with their distinctive tufts of hair, have piqued the curiosity of many regarding their potential toxicity.
While not exactly poisonous, some species of tussock moth caterpillars can cause skin irritation in sensitive individuals due to their hair-like bristles, called setae.
For example, the Hickory Tussock Moth Caterpillar is known for causing an itchy rash in some people upon contact.
Remember to exercise caution when handling these curious creatures, as reactions may vary from person to person.
It is always best to observe from a safe distance and avoid direct contact with tussock moth caterpillars.
Are Tussock Moth Caterpillars Poisonous?
Hickory Tussock Moth Caterpillar
Hickory tussock moth caterpillars are found in North America. They feed on various tree species, like hickory, oak, and maple.
One unique feature of these caterpillars is their white and black hairs, which can cause skin irritation in some individuals.
If touched, it’s best to wash your hands thoroughly to avoid any possible adverse reactions.
Spotted Tussock Moth Caterpillar
These caterpillars are native to North America, with a wide distribution ranging from Alaska to Mexico.
They feed on diverse host plants such as willows, birch, and blueberry. Spotted tussock moth caterpillars are characterized by:
- Yellow and black markings
- Long, soft, hair-like structures
Despite their vibrant appearance, these caterpillars are not known to be harmful to humans upon contact.
Tussock moth caterpillars can also be found in other parts of the world such as Europe, Africa, and Asia.
Various species may have different physical characteristics, feeding habits, and effects on humans or the environment.
|Known Effects on Humans
|Europe, Asia, Africa, North America
|Yellowish-brown with blue and red spots
|Defoliation of forests may have indirect consequences for humans
|White-marked Tussock Moth Caterpillar
|White hairs with red spots, black marks on the sides
|May cause skin irritation when touched
In conclusion, while some tussock moth caterpillars, like the hickory tussock moth, can cause skin irritation, others like the spotted tussock moth caterpillar are not harmful when touched.
Poisonous Bristles and Venom
Bristles and Setae
Tussock moth caterpillars, such as Lophocampa maculata and Lophocampa caryae, possess unique features:
- Bristles or setae
- Venomous properties within these setae
These structures create a defense mechanism to deter predators.
The venom in the caterpillars’ setae can cause irritation and discomfort to humans upon contact.
The primary goal of the venomous bristles is caterpillars’ protection. They deter:
- Small mammals
However, their venom can pose health hazards to humans. Skin contact with setae may lead to:
- Allergic reactions
In some cases, even their hemolymph or other droplets can be toxic, making the caterpillars both poisonous and venomous.
Remember to exercise caution around these creatures to avoid unwanted reactions.
Skin Reactions and Allergies
Tussock moth caterpillars are known to cause skin reactions such as rashes and itching in humans. Common symptoms include:
- Itchy rash, similar to a mosquito bite
- Red welts or irritation at the site of contact
These reactions typically result from direct contact with the caterpillar’s setae or airborne spread of their shed spines, activating mast cells through a protein called thaumotopoein.
In rare cases, exposure to tussock moth caterpillars can lead to more severe symptoms or even anaphylaxis:
- Swelling of the face, lips, or tongue
- Difficulty swallowing
- Shortness of breath
- Anaphylactic shock (extremely rare)
These severe cases result from a heightened immune response and hypersensitivity to allergens found within the caterpillar’s setae.
Treatment and Remedies
For mild reactions, treatment options include:
- Washing the affected area with soap and water to remove caterpillar hairs
- Applying hydrocortisone cream or calamine lotion to reduce itching
- Taking antihistamines to mitigate histamine release and minimize swelling
In severe cases, such as difficulty breathing or anaphylaxis, seek medical attention immediately.
An urgent care center or emergency room may be necessary to manage these reactions.
Habitat and Behavior
Tussock moth caterpillars are a type of insect belonging to the Erebidae family of Lepidoptera.
They can be found feeding on various trees and shrubs, particularly oak, willow, and other deciduous foliage in the United States.
Some specific species, like the white-marked tussock moth, are also known to feed on needles of coniferous trees.
The key host plants of tussock moth caterpillars include:
- Oak trees
- Willow trees
- Deciduous foliage
The seasonal activity of tussock moth caterpillars primarily occurs during the warmer months of the year.
Adult moths typically fly between May and June, and their caterpillars are present from July to September1.
Reproduction and Growth
Tussock moth caterpillars, such as the white-marked tussock moth, reproduce through a process that begins with the female moth laying eggs.
Eggs are laid in clusters of up to 100 or more on the underside of leaves1.
As the young larvae feed and grow, they initially feed in groups, but as they mature, they start feeding more solitarily or in smaller clusters1.
In spring, some species’ caterpillars, like the browntail moth, hatch from eggs laid in or on the mother’s cocoon2.
Comparison: White-marked Tussock Moth & Browntail Moth
|White-marked Tussock Moth
|Oak, willow, conifers
|Seasonal Activity (Caterpillars)
|underside of leaves
Prevention and Control
Safe Handling and Removal
Tussock moth caterpillars can cause skin irritation and, in rare cases, anaphylactic reactions. It’s essential to handle them with care:
- Wear gloves when touching caterpillars
- Use a soft bristle brush (like a toothbrush) to gently detach them from trees or surfaces
- Relocate them to a safe area where they won’t cause harm
Remember to keep an eye on natural predators, such as birds and insects, that may help control the population.
Protective Measures for Trees and Shrubs
Controlling tussock moth caterpillars is essential to protect trees and shrubs from damage. Here are some methods:
- Prune infested branches to reduce caterpillar numbers
- Remove egg masses in winter (overwinter) to prevent population growth in spring
- Introduce natural predators like birds or insects for biological control
Pros and Cons of Control Methods
|Reduces caterpillar population
|Can be labor-intensive; might damage the tree
|Removing egg masses
|Prevents population growth in spring
|Needs to be done in winter; difficult to find
|Natural process; minimal human effort
|Takes time; requires a suitable environment
In summary, prevent and control tussock moth caterpillars through safe handling, relocation, and protective measures for trees and shrubs.
Utilize natural predators and targeted removal strategies to keep their population in check and minimize potential health hazards and damage to plants.
To conclude, certain tussock moth caterpillars can trigger skin irritation due to their bristle-like setae.
The Hickory Tussock Moth Caterpillar, for instance, may cause itching and rashes upon contact.
Be cautious when handling, as reactions differ among individuals.
To stay safe, observe from afar and avoid direct contact with these caterpillars.
Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about tussock moth caterpillars.
Scroll down to have a look at some of them.
Letter 1 – White Marked Tussock Moth Caterpillar: Caution
I do not know what this is
Location: DeKalb Illinois
October 30, 2011 10:51 pm
I was sitting at a table outside on my schools campus when I looked down at my arm and this thing was climbing up my arm.
I have no idea what it is and cannot find any sort of description of it.
Signature: Desmond Wafers
This caterpillar is a White Marked Tussock Moth or Rusty Vapor Moth, Orgyia leucostigma.
The caterpillars from this genus are quite distinctive and they should be handled with care. According to BugGuide: “CAUTION: Contact with hairs may cause an allergic reaction.”
Letter 2 – White Marked Tussock Moth Caterpillar
Subject: Interesting Ohio find
Location: Central Ohio USA
September 14, 2014 12:22 pm
Just the obvious questions of “What the blank is this?” and “Can it hurt me?” come to mind when looking at this.
It caused my sister’s adrenaline to pump and just about everyone else’s skin to crawl, but I suspect it’s a harmless (to humans) caterpillar. Unless you eat it maybe?
“CAUTION: Avoid handling the caterpillar, as its hair is known to cause allergic reactions, especially in areas of the body with sensitive skin (e.g. back, stomach, inner arms). Seek medical treatment if a severe reaction occurs.”