White Marked Tussock Moth Caterpillar: A Fascinating Guide to Their World

The white-marked tussock moth caterpillar is a fascinating little creature you might find in certain parts of North America, such as the Great Plains, the Atlantic Ocean, southern Canada, and mixed forests where woods meet fields [source].

These caterpillars belong to the tussock moth family Lymantriidae, which are known to be cold-tolerant and closely related to the gypsy moth.

As the white-marked tussock moth caterpillar feeds and grows, it develops bright colors and stinging hairs as a defense mechanism against predators [source].

These vibrant hues warn of potential threats of their unpalatable nature, keeping the caterpillar safe from harm. So the next time you stumble upon one of these unique caterpillars, you’ll know how they’ve adapted to survive in their environment.

White Marked Tussock Moth Caterpillar Scientific Classification

The white-marked tussock moth (Orgyia leucostigma) belongs to the Lepidoptera order within the Animalia kingdom. As part of the arthropoda phylum, this insect has some distinctive characteristics. In this section, you will learn about the various aspects of this remarkable creature.

The white-marked tussock moth caterpillar is native to areas from the Great Plains to the Atlantic Ocean, including southern Canada. You can often find them in mixed forests or where woods meet fields [source]. They are a cold-tolerant species that share their family with the more notorious gypsy moth.

These caterpillars are known for their striking appearance. Some features of the white-marked tussock moth caterpillar include:

  • Bright colors
  • Distinctive hair tufts
  • Two long tufts in the front
  • Two or three tufts at the hind end

After hatching in spring, the tiny, hairy caterpillars begin to feed and grow. They eventually turn into adult moths that fly between May and June source. The female moths lay eggs on the underside of leaves in clusters, which can contain up to 100 or more eggs.

Feel free to explore additional information about these fascinating insects and their habitat and lifecycle to further enrich your knowledge of white-marked tussock moth caterpillars.

Physical Characteristics

Color and Appearance

The white marked tussock moth caterpillar is quite distinctive with its unique coloring and hair patterns. As a caterpillar, it features a striped body with a mixture of white, yellow, and black colors. Adding to its unique appearance, there are also tufts of hair on their back. These tufts, sometimes resembling toothbrush bristles, come in light tan shades.

Throughout the caterpillar’s body, you will find hair-like structures called setae. The first four abdominal segments are adorned with brush-like tufts of hair, while other segments are spotted with red dots. These characteristics make them quite easily identifiable.

Mature Stages

As the caterpillar matures into an adult moth, its physical appearance changes significantly:

Male Moth:

  • Smaller than female moth
  • Has fully developed wings
  • Flies to find a mate

Female Moth:

  • Larger than male moth
  • Flightless with reduced or absent wings
  • Focuses on laying eggs in or on her cocoon

When looking at adult moths, males and females are quite easy to distinguish because of these varying characteristics. Their colors also tend to be subdued shades of brown, gray, or white. This transformation from a colorful, hairy caterpillar to a more subdued adult moth is an interesting aspect of the white marked tussock moth’s life cycle.

Life Cycle and Generations

Egg Laying and Growth

The life cycle of the white marked tussock moth caterpillar begins with egg laying. Female moths lay eggs on or inside their cocoons, which then hatch in spring. After hatching, the tiny, hairy caterpillars start to feed and grow. As they progress through different life stages (instars), they undergo molting.

Here are some key features of the egg-laying and growth process:

  • Eggs are laid in or on the mother’s cocoon.
  • Hatching occurs in spring.
  • Caterpillars feed and grow, moving through various instars.

Mating and Reproduction

White marked tussock moths have one generation per year. Adult moths typically fly from May to June. Males seek out flightless females, using pheromones to locate potential mates. After mating, female moths lay eggs on their cocoon, ensuring the next generation’s development.

Some characteristics of mating and reproduction include:

  • One generation per year.
  • Males seek out flightless females using pheromones.
  • Eggs are laid after mating.

Overwintering

Overwintering is an essential phase in the life cycle of the white marked tussock moth caterpillar. During this time, eggs stay protected in the mother’s cocoon, and the insects can withstand cold temperatures. This ensures the survival of caterpillars until spring, when they can hatch and grow.

Key points about overwintering:

  • Eggs overwinter in the mother’s cocoon.
  • Cold-tolerant insects.

By understanding the life cycle of the white marked tussock moth caterpillar, you can better appreciate their intricate and unique survival strategies.

Habitat and Geographic Distribution

Typical Habitats

In general, white marked tussock moth caterpillars thrive in forested areas and often inhabit the edges where woods meet fields. They can also be found in mixed forests composed of both deciduous and coniferous trees. These creatures are quite adaptable and are known to exist in various habitats across North America1.

Host Trees

White marked tussock moth caterpillars feed on a wide range of host trees. A few examples include:

  • Oak
  • Maple
  • Birch
  • Poplar
  • Apple
  • Pear

These caterpillars have been known to feed on both deciduous and coniferous trees2.

Geographical Range

The geographical range of the white marked tussock moth caterpillar is primarily in eastern North America. They are known to be present in:

  • Southern Canada, including Alberta1
  • The northeastern United States
  • As far south as Texas3

Although not as common, they have also been reported in California. Overall, their distribution covers a vast area within North America, making them a fairly common insect in forested regions.

Ecological Role and Impact

Feeding Habits

White marked tussock moth caterpillars are members of the insecta class and are native to regions like Canada. Their diet consists of various host plants, as they feed on the leaves, foliage, and sometimes the needles of coniferous trees. The plants they consume can range from hardwood trees to shrubs.

Pest Status and Damage

These caterpillars can be considered pests, as their feeding activities can lead to significant defoliation. The impact of their defoliation can be compared to that of the notorious gypsy moth. Defoliation by these insects typically occurs on individual branches or a small area on the host plant, rather than the entire tree. However, if populations are large enough, the caterpillars can cause widespread damage.

Natural Enemies and Predators

White marked tussock moth caterpillars have several natural enemies and predators that help in controlling their population. Among these predators are various species of parasites and insects, such as parasitic wasps. Predation plays a crucial role in maintaining the balance of their populations and reducing the likelihood of severe outbreaks.

Impact on Trees

Although white marked tussock moth caterpillars are not considered a major threat to tree health, their feeding activity can cause damage to trees, particularly young ones. Their feeding can lead to partial or complete defoliation of certain branches, leading to stress on the tree. In some cases, especially when combined with other stressors like drought or disease, this stress can contribute to tree decline or even death.

Adaptive Features and Defense Mechanisms

Skin Irritation and Allergic Reactions

The white marked tussock moth caterpillar has an array of defense mechanisms, one of which is causing skin irritation and allergic reactions in predators and humans who touch them. When you come into contact with the caterpillar’s bristles, it can cause a mild to severe sting, potentially leading to a rash or irritation.

In some cases, the sting can result in an allergic reaction, which can vary in severity depending on your individual sensitivity. It is crucial to be careful around these caterpillars and avoid touching them with your bare hands.

Defensive Hairs and Chemicals

Another feature that helps protect the white marked tussock moth caterpillar against predators are their defensive hairs and chemicals. The caterpillar is covered with fine bristles that can easily break off and penetrate your skin, releasing chemicals that cause irritation and pain. This serves as an effective deterrent, as predators are unlikely to want to eat something that causes them discomfort.

In summary, the white marked tussock moth caterpillar has developed a number of adaptive features to protect itself against predators and potential threats:

  • It can cause skin irritation and allergic reactions through direct contact.
  • The caterpillar is covered with defensive hairs that release chemicals when touched, causing pain and discomfort.

By employing these defense mechanisms, the caterpillar increases its chances of survival in its natural habitat. So, when you encounter these creatures, it’s best to appreciate their unique features from a safe distance and avoid touching them to prevent any adverse reactions.

Footnotes

  1. White-Marked Tussock Moth – Field Station 2
  2. Whitemarked Tussock Moth | NC State Extension Publications
  3. Whitemarked Tussock Moth – Texas A&M University

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about these insects. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Letter 1 – White Marked Tussock Moth Caterpillar

Bugs on my Hop Plants
Location: Northwestern Ohio
August 16, 2011 2:28 pm
Attached is a picture of a bug that is all over my cascade Hops plant late this summer. It found white spun webs on leafs with them in it. There are a bunch more just crawling around curled up on the Hops leaves. They seem to leave the Hop cones alone. They are about 1.5 inch in length or smaller
Signature: John

White Marked Tussock Moth Caterpillar

Hi John,
This is a White Marked Tussock Moth Caterpillar,
Orgyia leucostigma, and we are quite intrigued to learn that it feeds on the leaves of hops. According to BugGuide:  “Caterpillars feed on a wide range of hardwood trees and conifers. Wagner(1) lists ‘apple, birch, black locust, cherry, elm, hackberry, hickory, oak, rose, willow…fir, hemlock, larch, spruce and other conifers.'”  Thanks to your experience, we can add hops to the list.  BugGuide also indicates  “Flightless females lay a froth-covered mass of up to 300 eggs after mating.”  Since the female is flightless, it stands to reason that the species is not easily introduced to new areas unless they are somehow transported there, like through human intervention.  If the hops plants are new to your garden, you may have brought the eggs along with the plants.  One final note is that BugGuide warns: “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.”  Out of our own curiosity, are you a home brewer?  Our friend Jared makes amazing home brews in Los Angeles, and we just got invited to the hop harvest this week.

Thanks for the quick reply Daniel! I am a home brewer. I planted these hops two years ago. I don’t remember the caterpillars last year but the hops were not as plentiful last year.Oddly, I planted 5 different hops plants right next to each other andhave only seen the caterpillars on the cascade hops. (who doesn’t like a little cascade?). I will ask my home brew store where the hops rhizomes came from.
Thanks again,
John mulligan
swanton, oh

Letter 2 – White Marked Tussock Moth Caterpillar

What’s This Bug?
Location:  Charlottesville, Va
August 26, 2010 7:18 pm
Hi there – Love your sight. Can you tell me what this creature is?
Kate

White Marked Tussock Moth Caterpillar

Dear Kate,
This is the caterpillar of a White Marked Tussock Moth,
Orgyia leucostigma.  According to Bugguide:  “Caterpillars are recognized by the bright red head and broad black stripe along the back flanked by a yellow stripe each side. Two red glands on sixth and seventh abdominal segments, and four tufts of hairs (which may be white, gray or yellowish) on the first four abdominal segments are common to several members of the genus.  CAUTION: Contact with hairs may cause an allergic reaction.

Letter 3 – Whitemarked Tussock Moth Caterpillar

Subject: Furry stick bug
Location: Knoxville, tn
April 29, 2017 10:50 am
Found this guy crawling on my deck and have never seen anything like it. It looked furry, had an orange head with antennas and some kind of tail. Almost like a cross between a stick bug, centipede and butterfly. What is this?
It was found mid day, in the shade on April 29, 2017. Its a warm day in the 80s.
Signature: Amanda

Whitemarked Tussock Moth Caterpillar

Dear Amanda,
This is a Whitemarked Tussock Moth Caterpillar,
Orgyia leucostigma, and it should be handled with caution as the hairs might cause irritation in sensitive people.  According to BugGuide:  “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.”

Letter 4 – Whitemarked Tussock Moth Caterpillar

Subject: Unkown Creepy Callapiter
Location: Florida near pensacola, cantonment. But in a country part called Molino
April 20, 2016 5:32 pm
I was sitting with my mother in our barn in cantonment. when I noticed (What i thought was fuz,) until it started moving. I have never seen anything like it, (Nor had my mom,) and i wanted to know more. It had to large thick, black antenaes. And one identical anteanae like tail. Conecting the anteanaes/tail was a black line down the middle, with little yellow hair covering the sides. It had an orange like headband, and two small red dots near its hind end. What was peculiar was the 4 white dots on its back, with a spiky black line coming out of each. Please help. We have many animals around our farm and would really like to know this type of bug, and if it is dangerous. Thankyou.
Signature: Please respond, Aden

Whitemarked Tussock Moth Caterpillar
Whitemarked Tussock Moth Caterpillar

Dear Aden,
This is a Whitemarked Tussock Moth Caterpillar,
Orgyia leucostigma, and according to BugGuide:  “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.”

Letter 5 – White Marked Tussock Moth Caterpillar

White Marked Tussock Moth Caterpillar
LA & D,
So, having decided that your site is just an extraordinary amount of fun, we’ve pulled out our digital bug photos from over the course of this century. We were planning to inundate you with requests, but then we discovered that we can almost always ID what we were going to send, based on someone else’s submission over that same stretch of time. At first, we’re disappointed: “Damn it!” we say (or think), “someone’s already submitted this one!” Then there’s a followup realization — we learn a lot from scanning through the site, looking for matches. We learn what we’ve got — a six spotted green tiger beetle here, a Calligrapha multipunctata there… and we also learn to recognize incredible beasties we haven’t yet come across in the flesh, like Homesteader grasshoppers, Wheel bugs and the barely believeable Hickory Horned Devil caterpillar. So thanks for all your effort, and here’s another rerun for you; a White Marked Tussock Moth Caterpillar, shot in September of 2000 in northeastern Pennsylvania.
Jim & Sandy

Hi again Jim and Sandy,
Your photo is quite beautiful. Just a suggestion before you innundate us with images: try to send them in at approximately the same time of year that they were shot so that being posted on the homepage will assist other readers more than unseasonal postings. Your White Marked Tussock Moth image is quite nice.

Letter 6 – White Marked Tussock Moth Caterpillar

Subject: caterpillar
Location: Manassas, VA
September 30, 2012 11:55 am
Two years in a row I found this in my back yard, but have never seen one before. Can you ID this?
Signature: Brent in Manassas, VA

White Marked Tussock Moth Caterpillar

Hi Brent,
This is the caterpillar of the White Marked Tussock MothBugGuide warns:  “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.”

Letter 7 – Whitemarked Tussock Moth Caterpillar

Subject:  weird catapiller
Geographic location of the bug:  south eastern Tennessee
Date: 05/08/2018
Time: 05:44 PM EDT
Your letter to the bugman:  hey found this on my leg fishing and never seen it before what is it? thanks
How you want your letter signed:  Mr Crabtree

Whitemarked Tussock Moth Caterpillar

Dear Mr Crabtree,
This is a Whitemarked Tussock Moth Caterpillar.  Handle with caution as this species has urticating hairs.

Letter 8 – White Marked Tussock Moth Caterpillar

Subject:  Crazy catarpillar
Geographic location of the bug:  New England, USA
Date: 09/08/2018
Time: 12:54 PM EDT
Your letter to the bugman:  What is this!?
How you want your letter signed:  curious gal

Whitemarked Tussock Moth Caterpillar

Dear curious gal,
This is a White Marked Tussock Moth Caterpillar.

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about these insects. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Letter 1 – White Marked Tussock Moth Caterpillar

Bugs on my Hop Plants
Location: Northwestern Ohio
August 16, 2011 2:28 pm
Attached is a picture of a bug that is all over my cascade Hops plant late this summer. It found white spun webs on leafs with them in it. There are a bunch more just crawling around curled up on the Hops leaves. They seem to leave the Hop cones alone. They are about 1.5 inch in length or smaller
Signature: John

White Marked Tussock Moth Caterpillar

Hi John,
This is a White Marked Tussock Moth Caterpillar,
Orgyia leucostigma, and we are quite intrigued to learn that it feeds on the leaves of hops. According to BugGuide:  “Caterpillars feed on a wide range of hardwood trees and conifers. Wagner(1) lists ‘apple, birch, black locust, cherry, elm, hackberry, hickory, oak, rose, willow…fir, hemlock, larch, spruce and other conifers.'”  Thanks to your experience, we can add hops to the list.  BugGuide also indicates  “Flightless females lay a froth-covered mass of up to 300 eggs after mating.”  Since the female is flightless, it stands to reason that the species is not easily introduced to new areas unless they are somehow transported there, like through human intervention.  If the hops plants are new to your garden, you may have brought the eggs along with the plants.  One final note is that BugGuide warns: “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.”  Out of our own curiosity, are you a home brewer?  Our friend Jared makes amazing home brews in Los Angeles, and we just got invited to the hop harvest this week.

Thanks for the quick reply Daniel! I am a home brewer. I planted these hops two years ago. I don’t remember the caterpillars last year but the hops were not as plentiful last year.Oddly, I planted 5 different hops plants right next to each other andhave only seen the caterpillars on the cascade hops. (who doesn’t like a little cascade?). I will ask my home brew store where the hops rhizomes came from.
Thanks again,
John mulligan
swanton, oh

Letter 2 – White Marked Tussock Moth Caterpillar

What’s This Bug?
Location:  Charlottesville, Va
August 26, 2010 7:18 pm
Hi there – Love your sight. Can you tell me what this creature is?
Kate

White Marked Tussock Moth Caterpillar

Dear Kate,
This is the caterpillar of a White Marked Tussock Moth,
Orgyia leucostigma.  According to Bugguide:  “Caterpillars are recognized by the bright red head and broad black stripe along the back flanked by a yellow stripe each side. Two red glands on sixth and seventh abdominal segments, and four tufts of hairs (which may be white, gray or yellowish) on the first four abdominal segments are common to several members of the genus.  CAUTION: Contact with hairs may cause an allergic reaction.

Letter 3 – Whitemarked Tussock Moth Caterpillar

Subject: Furry stick bug
Location: Knoxville, tn
April 29, 2017 10:50 am
Found this guy crawling on my deck and have never seen anything like it. It looked furry, had an orange head with antennas and some kind of tail. Almost like a cross between a stick bug, centipede and butterfly. What is this?
It was found mid day, in the shade on April 29, 2017. Its a warm day in the 80s.
Signature: Amanda

Whitemarked Tussock Moth Caterpillar

Dear Amanda,
This is a Whitemarked Tussock Moth Caterpillar,
Orgyia leucostigma, and it should be handled with caution as the hairs might cause irritation in sensitive people.  According to BugGuide:  “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.”

Letter 4 – Whitemarked Tussock Moth Caterpillar

Subject: Unkown Creepy Callapiter
Location: Florida near pensacola, cantonment. But in a country part called Molino
April 20, 2016 5:32 pm
I was sitting with my mother in our barn in cantonment. when I noticed (What i thought was fuz,) until it started moving. I have never seen anything like it, (Nor had my mom,) and i wanted to know more. It had to large thick, black antenaes. And one identical anteanae like tail. Conecting the anteanaes/tail was a black line down the middle, with little yellow hair covering the sides. It had an orange like headband, and two small red dots near its hind end. What was peculiar was the 4 white dots on its back, with a spiky black line coming out of each. Please help. We have many animals around our farm and would really like to know this type of bug, and if it is dangerous. Thankyou.
Signature: Please respond, Aden

Whitemarked Tussock Moth Caterpillar
Whitemarked Tussock Moth Caterpillar

Dear Aden,
This is a Whitemarked Tussock Moth Caterpillar,
Orgyia leucostigma, and according to BugGuide:  “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.”

Letter 5 – White Marked Tussock Moth Caterpillar

White Marked Tussock Moth Caterpillar
LA & D,
So, having decided that your site is just an extraordinary amount of fun, we’ve pulled out our digital bug photos from over the course of this century. We were planning to inundate you with requests, but then we discovered that we can almost always ID what we were going to send, based on someone else’s submission over that same stretch of time. At first, we’re disappointed: “Damn it!” we say (or think), “someone’s already submitted this one!” Then there’s a followup realization — we learn a lot from scanning through the site, looking for matches. We learn what we’ve got — a six spotted green tiger beetle here, a Calligrapha multipunctata there… and we also learn to recognize incredible beasties we haven’t yet come across in the flesh, like Homesteader grasshoppers, Wheel bugs and the barely believeable Hickory Horned Devil caterpillar. So thanks for all your effort, and here’s another rerun for you; a White Marked Tussock Moth Caterpillar, shot in September of 2000 in northeastern Pennsylvania.
Jim & Sandy

Hi again Jim and Sandy,
Your photo is quite beautiful. Just a suggestion before you innundate us with images: try to send them in at approximately the same time of year that they were shot so that being posted on the homepage will assist other readers more than unseasonal postings. Your White Marked Tussock Moth image is quite nice.

Letter 6 – White Marked Tussock Moth Caterpillar

Subject: caterpillar
Location: Manassas, VA
September 30, 2012 11:55 am
Two years in a row I found this in my back yard, but have never seen one before. Can you ID this?
Signature: Brent in Manassas, VA

White Marked Tussock Moth Caterpillar

Hi Brent,
This is the caterpillar of the White Marked Tussock MothBugGuide warns:  “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.”

Letter 7 – Whitemarked Tussock Moth Caterpillar

Subject:  weird catapiller
Geographic location of the bug:  south eastern Tennessee
Date: 05/08/2018
Time: 05:44 PM EDT
Your letter to the bugman:  hey found this on my leg fishing and never seen it before what is it? thanks
How you want your letter signed:  Mr Crabtree

Whitemarked Tussock Moth Caterpillar

Dear Mr Crabtree,
This is a Whitemarked Tussock Moth Caterpillar.  Handle with caution as this species has urticating hairs.

Letter 8 – White Marked Tussock Moth Caterpillar

Subject:  Crazy catarpillar
Geographic location of the bug:  New England, USA
Date: 09/08/2018
Time: 12:54 PM EDT
Your letter to the bugman:  What is this!?
How you want your letter signed:  curious gal

Whitemarked Tussock Moth Caterpillar

Dear curious gal,
This is a White Marked Tussock Moth Caterpillar.

Authors

    by
  • Bugman

    Bugman aka Daniel Marlos has been identifying bugs since 1999. whatsthatbug.com is his passion project and it has helped millions of readers identify the bug that has been bugging them for over two decades. You can reach out to him through our Contact Page.

  • Piyushi Dhir

    Piyushi is a nature lover, blogger and traveler at heart. She lives in beautiful Canada with her family. Piyushi is an animal lover and loves to write about all creatures.

13 thoughts on “White Marked Tussock Moth Caterpillar: A Fascinating Guide to Their World”

  1. Hi,
    Just came on this web site. I also have this white marked tussock moth caterpillar all over my hop plants. I also am a home brewer. These hops have been here for 5 to 10 years and this is the first year I have seen them and they are very abundant, so I am highly confident they came from some other source as we have an extensive garden. We live in central Michigan 5 miles north of East Lansing in Bath. I wonder what adverse affects they have caused since this post is 2 years old.
    Thanks Tom D.

    Reply
  2. I like in Arkansas and I have notice one or two around or in our carport. I had no idea what it was. It scared me a little to be honest but thanks for all the information.

    Reply
  3. I don’t home brew but we have these all over the place here in south Texas. They prefer our oak trees. DO NOT touch them because the sting is extremely painful but only lasts about 15 to 30 minutes.

    Reply

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