Black Caterpillar Identification and Guide

Updated on September 9, 2018
greenmind profile image

I have studied insects for nearly forty years, and I have also done battle with my share of garden pests.

Black (and Mostly Black) Caterpillars

What kinds of caterpillars are black or mostly black in color? There are many, many dark-colored caterpillars out there. This quick and easy guide features some of the more common black caterpillars in North America and Eurasia. This guide will help you identify the dark-colored caterpillar you found.

For every species, this guide will tell you the common and scientific name. All insects have a scientific name, and many have a common or popular name. For example, the insect with the scientific name Spilosoma virginica is commonly known as "the yellow woolly bear."

This guide will also answer the following key questions:

  • Does it sting? Some caterpillars have stinging hairs and spines, and need to be handled very carefully.
  • What Does It Eat? Every caterpillar has specific trees and plants that it eats.
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Most caterpillars do little to no damage, but a few pest species can really destroy a garden, or even a forest. A few species need to be reported to authorities to protect the local environment.
  • Is it rare? The black caterpillar you found may be an unusual species!
  • What does it turn into? Caterpillars are the immature form of butterflies and moths. Your dark-colored caterpillar will turn into some kind of winged adult, and some are very beautiful.
  • Can you raise it to an adult? It's possible to keep a caterpillar and raise it to the moth or butterfly. You will need to know what it eats, and be patient while it grows and changes into the adult.

Look at the images here and see if the caterpillar matches the one you found. If it's not an exact match, try a Google search using the identification features as a starting point. Good luck!

Peacock Butterfly Caterpillar

Peacock Butterfly Caterpillar (Aglais io)
Peacock Butterfly Caterpillar (Aglais io)

1. Peacock Butterfly: Aglais io

This European butterfly is one of the most striking insects on earth. The caterpillar of this species is a rather plain black caterpillar armed with many spines. Despite the spines, this caterpillar is harmless and does not sting. It feeds on nettles, and in the fall it sheds its skin and turns into a chrysalis. The adult butterfly hatches out of the chrysalis and flies off to mate and lay eggs, which completes the cycle.

  • Does it sting? No. These caterpillars are totally harmless.
  • What does it eat? Nettles
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No. It will eat some of the greens and leaves, but not very much.
  • Is it rare? No, but they're hard to see on the plant.
  • What does it turn into? A really gorgeous butterfly.
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes -- it's easy to raise this species. Make sure it has a stick in the container, because it makes a chrysalis on an upright stem.

A Peacock Butterfly
A Peacock Butterfly

Giant Leopard Moth Caterpillar

Giant Leopard Moth Caterpillar (Hypercompe scribonia)
Giant Leopard Moth Caterpillar (Hypercompe scribonia)

2. Giant Leopard Moth: Hypercompe scribonia

This is a large, black, spiny caterpillar. The spines are very sharp and stiff, almost like needles. When it feels threatened, the caterpillar rolls itself up into a ball with the spines sticking out. It also shows bright crimson bands between its body segments. Red and black are universal warning colors, and predators might well think that they're dealing with a wasp. If they do try to take a bite, all they will get is a mouthful of spines.

The beautiful moth, which is large and strikingly marked with black circles and iridescent blue spots, overwinters as full-grown caterpillars, usually under rocks, where you may find them curled up in the middle of winter. In the spring they spin a cocoon and the adults emerge in the summer

  • Does it sting? No, but the spines are very stiff and sharp
  • What does it eat? Plantains, dandelions and violets
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No. It will eat some of the greens and leaves, but not very much.
  • Is it rare? No, but more common in South
  • What does it turn into? A really gorgeous moth.
  • Can you raise it to an adult? No, due to its overwintering habits.

Giant Leopard Moth Caterpillar Showing Crimson Bands
Giant Leopard Moth Caterpillar Showing Crimson Bands
A Giant Leopard Moth
A Giant Leopard Moth

Mourning Cloak Caterpillar

Mourning Cloak Caterpillar (Nymphalis antiopa)
Mourning Cloak Caterpillar (Nymphalis antiopa)

3. Mourning Cloak: Nymphalis antiopa

The mourning cloak butterfly gets its name from the color of the butterfly's underside, which is a very somber shade of gray-brown. The butterfly's upper side is stunning, with a rich maroon ground color, yellow wing margins, and deep violet spots. This butterfly sometimes overwinters, and can be seen flying very early in spring.

The caterpillar eats elms, and it sometimes known as "the spiny elm caterpillar." The black ground color is offset by red spots. The caterpillar has sharp black spines to deter predators.

  • Does it sting? No -- the spines are just for show
  • What does it eat? Elms
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Typically not an issue
  • Is it rare? No, except in England, where it is very rare
  • What does it turn into? A beautiful butterfly
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes

A Mourning Cloak Butterfly
A Mourning Cloak Butterfly

Pipevine Swallowtail Caterpillar

Pipevine Swallowtail Caterpillar (Battus philenor)
Pipevine Swallowtail Caterpillar (Battus philenor)

4. Pipevine Swallowtail: Battus philenor

The pipevine swallowtail is a member of the family Papilionidae, a very large group whose members can be found all over the world. The caterpillars of this group all share some very interesting characteristics, chief of which is the presence of a defensive organ called "osmeteria." When threatened, swallowtail caterpillars can evert, or stick out, an orange forked "tongue." This is in fact not a tongue at all, and it comes from behind the insect's head, but it resembles the forked tongue of a snake. This effect is enhanced in many species that also have realistic false eye markings, so the illusion of an angry snake, and not a tasty caterpillar, is complete. Adding to all this is the fact that the osmeteria smell like overripe fruit!

The pipevine swallowtail caterpillar also likely tastes bad due to the toxic sap of its foodplant, and it has the classic red-on-black colors that warn predators away. The adult butterfly is one of the more gorgeous butterflies in North America, and is commonly found throughout the southern states.

  • Does it sting? No, even though it looks like it could
  • What does it eat? Pipevines
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Not usually
  • Is it rare? Common in the South; less so in the North
  • What does it turn into? A spectacular butterfly
  • Can you raise it to an adult?

A Pipevine Swallowtail Butterfly
A Pipevine Swallowtail Butterfly

Black Cutworm

Black Cutworm (Agrotis ipsilon)
Black Cutworm (Agrotis ipsilon)

5. Black Cutworm: Agrotis ipsilon

This is a very common insect, with many similar species occurring throughout the world. The caterpillar is one of the "cutworms," so-called because they have a habit of attacking plants at ground level, eating through the stem and literally "cutting down" the plant. They can be a serious pest in some situations, and sometimes show up in large numbers, decimating entire crops. Gardeners sometimes find them when they're digging in soil, where the cutworms hide during the day.

The moths of this group are generally brown or gray, and even experts sometimes have difficulty telling them apart. They come to lights at night, and are often referred to as "miller moths" because they mill around the light.

  • Does it sting? No -- it's completely harmless
  • What does it eat? Many low plants and flowers
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Yes, since it "cuts down" plants at ground level
  • Is it rare? No, very common
  • What does it turn into? A large brown moth
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes

A Black Cutworm Moth
A Black Cutworm Moth

Garden Tiger Moth Caterpillar

Garden Tiger Moth Caterpillar (Arctica caja)
Garden Tiger Moth Caterpillar (Arctica caja)

6. Garden Tiger Moth: Arctia caja

This species is not common, but can be found in the right place and time -- generally across the northern states, Canada, and into the western mountain ranges. The caterpillar is not all black, like many in this guide, but has orange and often gray hairs in addition to the black ground color. This caterpillar is closely related to the common "woolly bear," which is black on the ends with red in the middle and is often found crawling across roads in late summer.

The adult moth of Arctia caja is large and truly beautiful, with vibrant orange-red hindwings spotted with deep blue-black.

  • Does it sting? No, although the spines and hairs can irritate the skin
  • What does it eat? Foxglove, daisy, and plantains
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No
  • Is it rare? Yes -- this moth is endangered in parts of its range
  • What does it turn into? A strikingly beautiful moth
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Difficult due to hibernation/life cycle

A Garden Tiger Moth
A Garden Tiger Moth

Azalea Caterpillar

Azalea Caterpillar (Datana major)
Azalea Caterpillar (Datana major)

7. Azalea Caterpillar: Datana major

The azalea caterpillar feeds on azaleas, naturally, and it can show up in numbers and do serious damage. It's one of a group of moths in the genus Datana, and they are typically group-feeders. If a gang of Datana caterpillars select your plant or tree as a food source, then you're in for a battle.

The caterpillars are somewhat variable, and often have more black than the one pictured. The adult moth is a handsome soft brown with a furry, rust-colored "collar," but that's small consolation for the gardener who comes out to discover his prize azaleas under siege from an army of Datana larvae.

  • Does it sting? No, it's harmless
  • What does it eat? Lots and lots of azalea leaves
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Yes
  • Is it rare? No
  • What does it turn into? A brown moth
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, they do well in captivity

An Azalea Caterpillar Moth
An Azalea Caterpillar Moth

Scarce Dagger Moth Caterpillar

Scarce Dagger Moth Caterpillar (Acronicta auricoma)
Scarce Dagger Moth Caterpillar (Acronicta auricoma)

8. Scarce Dagger Moth: Acronicta auricoma

Acronicta auricoma is a European species, but there are members of the Acronicta genus throughout the Northern Hemisphere, and many of the caterpillars are black or dark-colored. This species feeds on oaks, roses, and other plants. It exhibits the classic yellow-on-black colors that are shown by wasps and bees, which might make a predator think twice about attacking.

The adult moth is typical of all the other moths in the genus -- in fact, many of them are nearly identical, despite having caterpillars that don't remotely resemble each other. They are generally referred to "dagger moths," because most of the moths have a small dagger-like marking in the corners of the upper wings.

  • Does it sting? No, although the spines can be irritating to sensitive skin
  • What does it eat? Many trees, including oaks
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Not usually
  • Is it rare? No, but it is "scarce" throughout its range
  • What does it turn into? A pretty gray and black moth
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes

A Scarce Tiger Moth
A Scarce Tiger Moth

Walnut Caterpillars

Walnut Caterpillars (Datana integerrima)
Walnut Caterpillars (Datana integerrima)

9. Walnut caterpillar: Datana integerrima

This species is closely related to the azalea caterpillar, and has many of the same habits, such as traveling in packs and eating everything in sight. As the name suggests, this species eats walnut leaves, but it will attack many different kinds of trees and can be a serious pest. Walnut caterpillars and several other Datana species sometimes move in groups, and even nose-to-tail in long lines (the related European "pine processionary caterpillar" is named for its habit of moving in long lines on the forest floor).

The moth, like all Datana species, is shades of warm brown and has a thickly furred body. When at rest, they closely resemble a rolled-up dry leaf.

  • Does it sting? No -- this caterpillar is harnless
  • What does it eat? Walnuts and related trees
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Yes, it can be quite destructive
  • Is it rare? No
  • What does it turn into? A large brown moth
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes

A Walnut Caterpillar Moth
A Walnut Caterpillar Moth

Woolly Bear Caterpillar

Woolly Bear Caterpillar (Pyrrharctia isabella)
Woolly Bear Caterpillar (Pyrrharctia isabella)

10. Woolly Bear: Pyrrharctia isabella

One of the most familiar sights in the late summer and early fall is this caterpillar, the woolly bear, trucking across rural roads as they search for a place to hibernate for the winter. These furry, black and red caterpillars can be very common at times, showing up everywhere from rural farmland to urban backyards. Woolly bears are even a part of folklore, with farmers supposedly being able to predict the harshness of the coming winter by the width of the bands on the caterpillar. This is of course not an accurate way to predict the weather.

The woolly bear makes a pretty moth that most people never see. Since moths fly at night, and this species does not often come to lights, the adult moth goes through its life out of the sight of humans.

  • Does it sting? No, although the stiff fur can be irritating to the skin
  • What does it eat? Dandelions, plantains, and other low plants
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No
  • Is it rare? No
  • What does it turn into? A pretty light orange moth
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Not easy due to its life-cycyle

A Woolly Bear Moth
A Woolly Bear Moth

Where Does a Woolly Bear Go in the Winter?

Catalpa Sphinx Caterpillar (Black Form)

Catalpa Sphinx Caterpillar (Black Form)
Catalpa Sphinx Caterpillar (Black Form)

11. Catalpa Sphinx: Ceratomia catalpae

Also known as the catalpa worm or catawba worm, the species feeds almost exclusively on catalpa trees, which are abundant in the South and becoming more often seen in the North. They typically show up in large numbers and can strip trees of leaves in some cases. Their abundance and visibility as a large, mobile caterpillar has led to the catawba worm being a favorite bait for fishermen throughout the South.

While one common form of this caterpillar is black, it has a variety of forms ranging from nearly all black all the way up to almost completely white. The adult moth is very large and heavy, with brown wings and a torpedo-shaped body. It belongs to a group called "hawkmoths" for their strong and swooping flight.

  • Does it sting? No -- like all "hornworms," this caterpillar is harmless
  • What does it eat? Catalpa leaves
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Yes, occasionally
  • Is it rare? No
  • What does it turn into? A large, swift-flying moth called a "hawkmoth."
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, although it burrows in the ground to pupate.

A Catalpa Sphinx Moth
A Catalpa Sphinx Moth

Tersa Sphinx Caterpillar (Black Form)

Tersa Sphinx Caterpillar (Black Form)
Tersa Sphinx Caterpillar (Black Form)

12. Tersa Sphinx: Xylophanes tersa

Like the catalpa sphinx (above), this species is a hawkmoth with a caterpillar that has a black form in addition to green and other colors. The tersa sphix caterpillar has impressive false eyes running all the way down its body, which may drive away or startle would-be predators like birds. This is mostly a southern species, but late in the summer its range expands and it may be found as far north as Canada.

The moth is very cool. It looks like a fighter jet, with its upswept wings and aerodynamic body.

  • Does it sting? No -- like all "hornworms," this caterpillar is harmless
  • What does it eat? Loosestrife, wild coffee, catalpa, and other leaves
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Not usually
  • Is it rare? No
  • What does it turn into? A large, swift-flying moth called a "hawkmoth."
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, although it burrows in the ground to pupate.

A Tersa Sphinx Moth
A Tersa Sphinx Moth

White-Lined Sphinx (Black Form)

White-Lined Sphinx (Black Form)
White-Lined Sphinx (Black Form) | Source

13. White-Lined Sphinx: Hyles lineata

This species occurs almost everywhere in the Western Hemisphere, and is generally the most common and widely-distributed sphinx moth in the world. It is sometimes called the "striped morning sphinx," because it flies at dusk and dawn. If you see a large moth swooping around your flower garden in the twilight, there's a good chance that it's a white-lined sphinx moth, feeding on nectar from the flowers.

Sphinx moths get their name from the caterpillars' tendency to rest with the front part of the body reared up in a "sphinx-like" pose. The caterpillar of this species, like many sphinx moth caterpillars, comes in many color forms.

  • Does it sting? No -- like all "hornworms," this caterpillar is harmless
  • What does it eat? Almost anything
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Not usually
  • Is it rare? No
  • What does it turn into? A large, swift-flying moth called a "hawkmoth."
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, although it burrows in the ground to pupate.

A White-Lined Sphinx Moth
A White-Lined Sphinx Moth

Black Swallowtail Caterpillar (Immature)

An Immature Black Swallowtail Caterpillar
An Immature Black Swallowtail Caterpillar

14. Black Swallowtail: Papilio polyxenes

The black swallowtail is a common garden butterfly that is also known for its caterpillar. It feeds on dill, parsley and carrot plants, where gardeners often find the green and black caterpillars. The immature caterpillars are small and black with a white "saddle" marking. They closely resemble bird droppings at this age; later instars are a perfectly-matched green leaf pattern.

The big, beautiful adult butterfly can be seen fluttering around dill and parsley plants, where it is likely laying eggs that will hatch into "baby" caterpillars.

  • Does it sting? No -- this caterpillar is harmless
  • What does it eat? Parsley, carrot, and dill
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Yes, occasionally
  • Is it rare? No
  • What does it turn into? A big, beautiful butterfly
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes

A Black Swallowtail Butterfly
A Black Swallowtail Butterfly

Black Millipede

Black Millipede (Diplopoda)
Black Millipede (Diplopoda)

15. Black Millipede: Class Diplopoda

This animal is not a caterpillar at all, and will not turn into a butterfly or moth. However it looks enough like a caterpillar to cause confusion with some people. Caterpillars have fleshy back legs and only about 10 segments; millipedes have dozens of legs and body segments. This animal does not bite or sting and is completely harmless.

  • Does it sting? No
  • What does it eat? Dead leaf and animal matter
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No
  • Is it rare? No
  • What does it turn into? Nothing -- this is the adult form
  • Can you raise it to an adult? N/A

Didn't See Your Caterpillar Here?

You may find it one one of these fine Owlcation guides:

Caterpillar Identification -- There are many caterpillars listed here for help with identification.

Furry Caterpillar Identification -- If your caterpillar is furry, you may find it here.

Striped Caterpillar Identification -- If your caterpillar has stripes, it could be in this guide.

Green Caterpillar Identification -- Many caterpillars are green to blend in with the leaves they feed on. The caterpillar you found may be in this identificaiton guide.

Resources

The following sources were consulted for this guide:

https://www.nature.com/news/the-curious-case-of-the-caterpillar-s-missing-microbes

https://research.duke.edu/butterfly-wings-and-caterpillar-brains

https://academic.oup.com/jipm/article/8/1/24/4157677

https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-1-4612-4644-2_6

Take a Poll!

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Questions & Answers

    Comments

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      • profile image

        Hurley 

        7 days ago

        I would like to identify a caterpillar of about 10 cm in length. Banded, dark green with white head?

      • profile image

        Maxine 

        5 weeks ago

        Oh No, a black cutworm is eating my fern!

      • greenmind profile imageAUTHOR

        GreenMind Guides 

        8 weeks ago from USA

        Hey very cool!

      • profile image

        Deanna bugley 

        2 months ago

        OMG I HAVE A WOLLY BEAR CATAPILER!!!!

      • profile image

        Jerry 

        2 months ago

        In Florida and I saw dark colored caterpillar with a head that looks a little like a snake, and when I prodded it two bright pink antennae popped out that looked like a snake's tongue and I smelled an odor it omitted. Couldn't find anything like it in the guide.

      • profile image

        2 months ago

        My caterpillar is black and orange and i cant find it anywhere!!!!

      • greenmind profile imageAUTHOR

        GreenMind Guides 

        2 months ago from USA

        Hi Jessler. You may send a photo of the insect to identification@panamainsects.org

      • profile image

        Jessler 

        2 months ago

        Hi... I need to know a particular insect

      • profile image

        lizzie macrae 

        3 months ago

        just trying to identify a caterpillar. . . west wales. . . n

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