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Black Caterpillars: An Identification Guide to Common Species

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From the spiky peacock butterfly caterpillar to the drab black cutworm, there are lots of black or mostly black caterpillars out there. What kind have you found?

From the spiky peacock butterfly caterpillar to the drab black cutworm, there are lots of black or mostly black caterpillars out there. What kind have you found?

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, some of which 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!

Identification Chart to Identify Black Caterpillars

NameIdentificationHabits

Peacock

Spiny; black with white spots

European; feeds on nettles

Giant leopard moth

Strong spines, red bands

Rolls up when threatened

Mourning cloak

Spaines with red spots along back

Feeds on elm

Pipevine swallowtail

Fleshy tentacles with some orange

Feeds on Aristolochia; possibly toxic

Black cutworm

Flat black with few markings

Found during day in soil; feeds at night

Garden tiger moth

Thick long hair, some white and orange

Feeds on low plants

Azalea caterpillar

Speckled black with red and orange

Feeds in groups on azalea leaves

Scarce dagger moth

Black with 12 striking yellow bumps on back

European species

Walnut caterpillar

flat black long white hairs

Feeds in groups on walnut

Banded woolly bear

Black with red on each end

wanders in late summer to find cocoon site

Catalpa sphinx

Several forms; some all black with curved horn on end

Feeds on catalpa trees

Tersa sphinx

Mostly gray-black with eyespots

Resembles a snake when stretched out

White-lined sphinx

Some forms nearly black; red curved horn

Common and widespread species in US

Black swallowtail

Immature forms are black with white "saddle"

Feeds on carrot, dill, and parsley

Great spangled fritillary

Flat black with orange-based spines

Adult resembles monarch butterfly

Red admiral

Black, spiny, white spots

Very common; adult flies around houses

Black millipede

Shine, rounded, many small legs

Not a caterpillar; lives in leaf litter

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 then hatches out of the chrysalis and flies off to mate and lay eggs, which completes the cycle.

The Basics

  • 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 its chrysalis on an upright stem.

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.

These beautiful moths, which are large and strikingly marked with black circles and iridescent blue spots, overwinter 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 from which the adults emerge in the summer.

The Basics

  • 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 they are more common in the South.
  • What does it turn into? A really gorgeous moth.
  • Can you raise it to an adult? No, due to its overwintering habits.

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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, however, 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 is 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.

The Basics

  • 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.

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 the osmeterium. 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 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 it is commonly found throughout the southern states.

The Basics

  • 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? No. It is common in the South; less so in the North.
  • What does it turn into? A spectacular butterfly.
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, as long as an ample habitat and plenty of pipevines are provided.

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 when they show up in large numbers, they're capable of decimating entire fields of 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.

The Basics

  • 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, they are very common.
  • What does it turn into? A large brown moth.
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes.

6. Garden Tiger Moth (Arctia caja)

This species is not common, but it can be found in the right place at the right 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.

The Basics

  • Does it sting? No, although its 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.

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 selects 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.

The Basics

  • 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.