Invasion of the caterpillars
Tuesday, April 10, 2012
Media contact: Jessica Basham
Spring has sprung and ’tis the season of the caterpillar. They are everywhere, crawling on outdoor walls, railings, cars, trees and picnic tables. You name it, caterpillars are on it.
In the last few weeks I have seen at least five different species of this squirmy critter around our office in Gainesville: the white-marked tussock moth, oak beauty, forest tent caterpillar, live oak metria and dubious tiger moth. The oak trees that shade our office are one of their host plants (a home providing food and shelter).
Caterpillars are the larvae of moths and butterflies. Once they hatch, they eat continuously. They love to eat leaves, stems, grasses, whatever tastes yummy. It is during this stage of their life that many gardeners and farmers consider them pests. Only after their transformation into beautiful winged beauties are they often adored.
Generally caterpillars look soft and squishy or like furry worms. However, looks are deceiving. Many times the “fur” or “hair” on caterpillars is like a sharp needle that causes skin irritations if rubbed or picked up. Most caterpillars will not make you sick. However, there are four common species in Florida that can make you sick: the puss caterpillar, io caterpillar, saddleback caterpillar and hag caterpillar. These are called stinging caterpillars. It is a good practice to never touch a caterpillar unless you know what it is and that it will not hurt you.
The beauty of caterpillars is how different each one is and how they use their markings, hairs and colors to survive. The tussock moth caterpillar is quite hairy, with four tan tufts of hair on its back, orange dots, a bright red head and tufts of long black hairs that look like antennae and a tail. It appears to be an alien. Others, like the oak beauty, are camouflaged and blend into the branches of oak trees – you can’t see them, and neither can a bird, unless you are looking for them.
Another fascinating thing about caterpillars is how they defend themselves against predators. Not only does their camouflage or sharp “fur” help, but there are many other ways caterpillars defend themselves. A puss caterpillar will puff itself up and use its tail to whip and strike a predator and cause a serious sting. The red head of a white-marked tussock moth is a signal for danger.
There is also a nasty thing called regurgitation. If threatened, some caterpillars regurgitate and squirt a brown liquid. It’s not dangerous, just gross. To a bird, that liquid from the belly of the caterpillar is quite bitter and unpleasant tasting, so the bird will spit out the caterpillar in most instances.
Caterpillars are fascinating, and there are so many things to learn about them and their adult forms. Right now, caterpillars are easy to find, because it is just before they will start the pupation process - called metamorphosis - when they become the beautiful, dazzling moths or butterflies that give gardens and wild areas color and motion. To learn more about these squirmy creatures, visit www.kidsbutterfly.org or contact your local IFAS office.