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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!

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.

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.

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 as "dagger moths," because most of the moths have a small dagger-like marking in the corners of the upper wings.

The Basics

  • Does it sting? No, although its 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 somewhat scarce throughout its range.
  • What does it turn into? A pretty gray-and-black moth.
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes.

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—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 dry, rolled-up leaf.

The Basics

  • Does it sting? No, this caterpillar is harmless.
  • 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.

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-orange 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.

The Basics

  • 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-cycle.

Where Does a Woolly Bear Go in the Winter?

11. Catalpa Sphinx (Ceratomia catalpae)

Also known as the catalpa worm or catawba worm, this 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.

The Basics

  • 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, so be sure to provide a habitat where that is possible.

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 sphinx 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.

The Basics

  • 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, so be sure to provide a habitat where that is possible.

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.

The Basics

  • 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, so be sure to provide a habitat where that is possible.

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.

The Basics

  • 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.
black-caterpillar-identification

15. Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele)

This black caterpillar has yellow or orange spines, and feeds primarily on violets. This means that it lives close to the ground, and that's where you will sometimes find it. It's much more common to see the adult form, a magnificent orange and black butterfly with shining silver spots on the underside of the wings (hence the "spangled" part of the name). These butterflies fly in mid-summer and may be a mimic of the monarch butterfly, which may be protected from predators by toxins acquired from the food plant, milkweed.

The Basics

  • Does it sting? No, this caterpillar is harmless.
  • What does it eat? Primarily violets
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No.
  • Is it rare? No, although the adult is more often seen than the black caterpillar.
  • What does it turn into? A big, beautiful butterfly.
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes.

Adult Great Spangled Fritillary

black-caterpillar-identification
black-caterpillar-identification

16. The Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta)

This is one of the most common butterflies in the eastern part of the US, and different forms and subspecies can be found throughout much of the world. This black caterpillar is spiny and may have a yellow stripe or series of markings down each side. They feed on stinging nettles, and make webby nests that may protect dozens of individual caterpillars. You may have seen these nests along roadsides or stream banks.

The adult butterfly is beautiful, with bright red bands and blue spots. The males like to patrol their territory late in the afternoon, often returning to the same spot, and often landing on people!

The Basics

  • Does it sting? No, this caterpillar is harmless.
  • What does it eat? Nettles.
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No.
  • Is it rare? No, although the adult is more often seen than the black caterpillar.
  • What does it turn into? A bright, beautiful butterfly.
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes.

Red Admiral Butterfly

black-caterpillar-identification
Black Millipede (Diplopoda)

Black Millipede (Diplopoda)

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 among some people. Caterpillars have fleshy back legs and only about 10 segments; millipedes have dozens of legs and body segments.

The Basics

  • Does it sting? No. This animal does not bite or sting and is completely harmless.
  • 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

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Comments

Gail Von Sydow on August 25, 2020:

Found a black velvety caterpillar in my home on the floor. Would like to identify it. Placed it on a fennel plant.

Olivia on August 19, 2020:

Me and my sister saw a black spiked catipiler

john on August 11, 2020:

saw a caterpillar approx.11/2" long in a tree don't know what it was smooth surface solid black very distinct ribs or sections to the body.

Recha on June 20, 2020:

I was actually looking for the image of a hairy caterpillar in my jackfruit tree. They are a lot and it is black 2 to 3 cm or 4cm long their base is black but the hair is like orange

Gayle on June 20, 2020:

Can these black caterpillar in UK be poison to dog

Nene on June 11, 2020:

I’ve been finding smooth all black larvae or caterpillars in my home and on my patio. First time ever in all the years I’ve lived here. They are light tan on underside, no hair or markings otherwise. I put them back outside. The research I’ve done points to sawfly larvae but I can’t find a picture that matches them perfectly. Only thing different in my yard is purchased tomatoes & parsley plants. Thank you in advance if someone could confirm identity.

lily boom boom on June 08, 2020:

I found a small caterpiller in a rosebud.It is black-brown and has white stripes, small black dots,black ring, and a black head

Minty Cat on May 06, 2020:

@Cheryl Boggs

might be a salt marsh caterpillar or a milkweed tiger moth. try those in the "17 Furry Caterpillar Types: An Identification Guide", also by GreenMind guides.

Cheryl Boggs on April 01, 2020:

My daughter found a fuzzy black with and orange stripe down the middle of its back and both sides. In North Florida any help?

GreenMind Guides (author) from USA on October 23, 2019:

Hi Greenphent These could be the dark form of a sphinx moth in the genus Eumorpha. Try googling "eumorpha sphinx caterpillar" and see if that's it.

greenphent on October 22, 2019:

In Arizona found two caterpillars, hairless dark gray with at least two lines of yellow dots going down its length eating my garden flower leaves late at night. Can't find it anywhere, please help!

Evelyn on September 29, 2019:

Someone posted a video on FB asking to id caterpillar: segmented dark grey body, black spike at rear, thorax looks like silver “hood” with black false eye on top in middle of hood, crawling on ground. Looks “sturdy.” No spikes. Pls help! Can’t find it anywhere!

Nancy Slater on September 27, 2019:

we have found a black fluffy caterpillar in western Australia in our garden doesn't seem to be on this list can anybody help ????

Rachel on September 21, 2019:

Found a blackish blye caterpillar!!! So cool cant seem too find it on this list, can anyone help?

MintycatdoesThings on September 14, 2019:

One emerged yesterday!

MintycatdoesThings on September 11, 2019:

Oh its a buckeye.

MintycatdoesThings on September 11, 2019:

OMG!!!! I FOUND SO MANY OF THEIR COCOONS!!!!

MintycatdoesThings on September 11, 2019:

What is mine?

MintycatdoesThings on September 10, 2019:

I saw a black spiky caterpillar near my house, with an orange head and sides. If anyone can find out what this is, then thank you very much!.

GreenMind Guides (author) from USA on August 22, 2019:

Micaela -- That is very cool, BUT it's more likely it was a virgin tiger moth (A. virgo). Florida is way too far south for A. caja.

Micaela on August 22, 2019:

I think I saw a Garden Tiger Moth Caterpillar at my home near Four Corners, Florida!

Rebecca E Alexander on July 25, 2019:

I found a big black caterpillar that has small orangish or whitish little spots and the top of head has a black place with outline of very light orange or white. Anyone know what it is

Phyllis on July 20, 2019:

What is the black and yellow caterpillar at the top. That's the one I'm trying to identify.

Kira on July 13, 2019:

I still haven’t I’d my caterpillar!

Leann on July 09, 2019:

I have a very small caterpillar. its brown-ish and is light brown underneath. has small white hairs on it. what do you think it is? is it poisonous?

Alex on June 11, 2019:

@John, it's likely a black swallowtail. We have about 16 of them that have recently hatched and claimed our parsley. Exactly as you described, small and black with a horizontal stripe.

John on June 10, 2019:

Found a very small caterpillar, black with a white stripe in the middle from side to side..... anyone know what it is, found it on parsley growing in a window box.

Just a guy being a dude on June 03, 2019:

I managed to get this caterpillar/worm on my shoulder without realising it and it had scales and a weird colouration (black and 2 rows of yellow/orange spikes on its midway), was wondering if anyone knows what it could be

Isaac hummel on May 27, 2019:

Black cutworm

Hurley on November 09, 2018:

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

Maxine on October 08, 2018:

Oh No, a black cutworm is eating my fern!

GreenMind Guides (author) from USA on September 17, 2018:

Hey very cool!

Deanna bugley on September 17, 2018:

OMG I HAVE A WOLLY BEAR CATAPILER!!!!

Jerry on September 14, 2018:

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.

M on August 25, 2018:

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

GreenMind Guides (author) from USA on August 24, 2018:

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

Jessler on August 24, 2018:

Hi... I need to know a particular insect

lizzie macrae on August 17, 2018:

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

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