Striped Caterpillar Identification Guide - Owlcation - Education
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Striped Caterpillar Identification Guide

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What kind of caterpillar is this? Read on to find out how to identify the striped cats in your backyard.

What kind of caterpillar is this? Read on to find out how to identify the striped cats in your backyard.

Striped Caterpillar Identification

This guide will help you identify the striped caterpillar that you found. Identification of caterpillars, like all insect species, relies on certain characteristics, and it can be difficult to tell them apart. This quick and easy guide is here to help.

All insects have a scientific name, and many have a common or popular name. For example, the insect with the scientific name Papilio glaucus is commonly known as "the tiger swallowtail butterfly." This guide will give you both the scientific and the popular name, if there is one.

This caterpillar identification 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. Striped caterpillars are no exception.
  • 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. In fact, a few species (some with stripes) need to be reported to authorities to protect the local environment.
  • Is it rare? Possibly! The striped caterpillar you found may be an unusual species!
  • What does it turn into? Caterpillars are the immature form of butterflies and moths. Your striped 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 a moth or butterfly. You will need to know what it eats, provide an adequate habitat, and be patient while it grows and changes into its mature form.

16 Striped Caterpillars Common in North America

  1. The Monarch Caterpillar (Danaus plexippus)
  2. The Queen Caterpillar (Danaus gilippus)
  3. Black Swallowtail Caterpillar (Papilio polyxenes)
  4. Cinnabar Moth (Tyria jacobaeae)
  5. Striped Garden Caterpillar (Trichordestra legitima)
  6. Orange-Striped Oakworm (Anisota senatoria)
  7. Giant Sphinx (Pseudosphinx tetrio)
  8. Zebra Caterpillar (Melanchra picta)
  9. Brown-Hooded Owlet (Cucullia convexipennis)
  10. White-Lined Sphinx (Hyles lineata)
  11. Azalea Caterpillar (Datana major)
  12. Angle Shades Moth (Phlogophora meticulosa)
  13. Cross-Striped Cabbage Worm (Evergestis rimosalis)
  14. American Painted Lady (Vanessa virginiensis)
  15. Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae)
  16. Rosy Maple Moth (Dryocampa rubicunda)

Continue scrolling for more information about each of these striped insects, along with photos of the caterpillars and the butterflies or moths they become.

Note: At the end of this article, you will also find information about how to safely control any pest caterpillars that may be plaguing your garden.

1. The Monarch Caterpillar (Danaus plexippus)

The iconic butterfly has an equally iconic caterpillar. The adults are highly photogenic, and their well-documented migrations—in which they wind up wintering in the millions in a small patch of forest in Mexico—have captured the attention and awareness of people who otherwise know little about butterflies.

This cool, striped caterpillar feeds only on milkweed, with an apparent preference for swamp milkweed. The adults lay eggs on the plant and the caterpillars eat the leaves. It's thought that the toxic sap of the milkweed plant (the "milk") imparts toxicity to the caterpillars, protecting them from predators. But at in my experience, at least, they're not protected from wasps and other insect predators; I have seen them wipe out an entire population from my backyard milkweed patch.

The Basics:

  • Does it sting? No, these caterpillars are harmless.
  • What does it eat? Exclusively milkweeds
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Not much, although they do eat leaves and young flowers.
  • Is it rare? No, although the species is challenged by industrial agriculture, since pesticide run-off kills milkweeds.
  • What does it turn into? It becomes the big, beautiful monarch butterfly.
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, these are easy to raise.

2. The Queen Caterpillar (Danaus gilippus)

This butterfly is a lesser-known relative of the more wide-spread monarch butterfly (above). The queen occurs in the southern United States, down through Mexico and into Central America, where it is one of the most common species to be found (whereas the monarch is very seldom seen). Interestingly, in areas where the queen is more common than the monarch, a butterfly called "the viceroy" that mimics the monarch has developed to mimic the queen instead.

The queen resembles the monarch but is a darker "burnt-orange" color and is a bit smaller. The caterpillar is also similar to the monarch but has more sharply defined stripes and an extra pair of tentacles on the back.

The Basics:

  • Does it sting? No, these caterpillars are harmless.
  • What does it eat? Exclusively milkweeds
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Not much, although they do eat leaves and young flowers.
  • Is it rare? No, although the species is not typically found in northern areas.
  • What does it turn into? It becomes the big, beautiful queen butterfly.
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, these are easy to raise.

3. Black Swallowtail Caterpillar (Papilio polyxenes)

Occasionally confused with monarch caterpillars by people who aren't looking too closely, this caterpillar has a fascinating natural history of its own. They eat carrots, parsley, dill, and occasionally rue, which may give them chemical protection due to those plants' bad-tasting sap.

Like all swallowtail caterpillars, this species has a forked, bad-smelling organ called an osmeterium that it can evert from behind its head. This organ looks like a snake's tongue and may deter predators.

The butterfly this cat becomes is big and beautiful and can often be seen visiting gardens to lay eggs on leaves.

The Basics:

  • Does it sting? No.
  • What does it eat? Dill, carrot, parsley, and rue
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Not really, although if you eat a lot of parsley you may find yourself competing with them.
  • Is it rare? No.
  • What does it turn into? It becomes a big, beautiful butterfly.
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, these are easy to raise.

4. Cinnabar Moth (Tyria jacobaeae)

This moth occurred only in Europe before it was introduced into New Zealand, Australia, and North America, primarily as a measure to control ragwort. This has proven to be effective, as the caterpillars are voracious feeders on this plant and can keep it from spreading as fast as it might. They eat so much that they often strip a patch of ragwort of all of its leaves . . . and then begin eating each other!

The striking black-and-yellow caterpillar turns into a truly beautiful moth, with bright scarlet markings on rich brown wings (although occasional yellow-marked individuals have been known to occur). The moth flies during the day, and its bright colors suggest that it's protected from predators by the illusion of having a bad taste (remember the monarch).

The Basics:

  • Does it sting? No.
  • What does it eat? Ragworts, and a lot of them.
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Yes, but that's kind of the idea.
  • Is it rare? It has been fairly recently introduced in the Pacific Northwest.
  • What does it turn into? It becomes a beautiful scarlet-and-gray moth.
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, theoretically.

5. Striped Garden Caterpillar (Trichordestra legitima)

This caterpillar is among the most commonly encountered garden "worms." It belongs to a large family of similar species, and many of them are quite commonly found; in fact, it's best to think of this caterpillar as a group of nearly identical insects that will all take a bite out of your garden.

The striped garden caterpillar eats almost anything, and close relatives are those caterpillars you sometimes find munching away inside an ear of corn. There are several ways to control these common garden pests, but the one I prefer is picking them off and smashing them into your compost pile. (For more information about how to control pests, scroll to the bottom of this article.)

The moth that these caterpillars grow up to be is a rather plain brown number that you will often see flying around your porch lights. It takes a specialist to tell some of the moths apart.

The Basics:

  • Does it sting? No.
  • What does it eat? Almost anything in your garden.
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Yes.
  • Is it rare? No. This species is found almost everywhere.
  • What does it turn into? It becomes a medium-sized brown moth.
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, if you really want to.

6. Orange-Striped Oakworm (Anisota senatoria)

This is a very cool species that will sometimes occur in large numbers. When this happens, you may find them crawling on the ground, usually in the vicinity of an oak tree. You can tell the female caterpillars from the males by size—the females are much larger than the males.

They all have a sherbet-orange ground color with thin black stripes and black, knobby "horns." There are closely related species that have pink or yellow stripes, but orange is the most common color.

The seldom-seen adult moth of the orange-striped oakworm is really beautiful. It has pale purple-and-orange wings with one bright white spot, and a thickly furred body. The adults do not feed, which may explain why the caterpillars eat so much!

The Basics:

  • Does it sting? No. The horns are only for show.
  • What does it eat? The leaves of oak and a few other trees.
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Yes, although not enough to actually kill or seriously hurt a tree. They will eat a lot of leaves, though, and make the tree look a little bare near the end of the summer.
  • Is it rare? No. This species is quite common.
  • What does it turn into? It becomes a beautiful (if rarely seen) moth.
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, and I think it's worth it so you can see the freshly-hatched adult. This species burrows into the ground to pupate and does not spin a cocoon, so if you want to raise one, be sure to provide the proper habitat.

7. Giant Sphinx (Pseudosphinx tetrio)

This relative of the tomato hornworm becomes a truly huge moth. The larvae are often seen in groups feeding on frangipani, and the bright stripes on the black ground color serve as a universal warning that the caterpillar tastes bad or is otherwise dangerous. Predators will shy away from striped caterpillars with these colors, since they often taste bad. Of course, some perfectly edible species have also evolved these colors, since being protected means you're more likely to reproduce.

As I mentioned, this moth is big. In Belize, a young boy once brought me a live tetrio sphinx in a sandwich bag. It barely fit in the bag, and it looked like it was about to tear the plastic open and come after us!

The Basics:

  • Does it sting? No. The horn on the tail is only for show.
  • What does it eat? Almost exclusively frangipani, but sometimes other related plants.
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Yes, it can, since frangipani typically have few leaves to begin with.
  • Is it rare? It's common in South and Central America and occurs in Florida too.
  • What does it turn into? It becomes a big, strong moth, one of a large group known as "hawkmoths."
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, but it's not easy since they like to feed and travel in groups.

8. Zebra Caterpillar (Melanchra picta)

This is a very cool-looking caterpillar that is quite often found in gardens. They eat cabbages and other plants and are often found in the company of other caterpillars, especially cutworms. Like cutworms, zebra caterpillars often roll into a ball and drop off the plant when they're disturbed.

The moth of this striped caterpillar is a rich, dark brown with subtle darker markings. They are very common around lights, where they typically blend in with other similar-looking species.

The Basics:

  • Does it sting? No.
  • What does it eat? Many garden plants.
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Yes, if there are enough of them.
  • Is it rare? No. This species is found almost everywhere.
  • What does it turn into? It becomes a medium-sized brown moth.
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes.

9. Brown-Hooded Owlet (Cucullia convexipennis)

This striped caterpillar is also often called the zebra caterpillar, and it does look a lot like the previous species. It is not closely related, however, and feeds on different plants.

You won't typically find this caterpillar in your garden, but you might find it in open areas where there are goldenrods and asters, its food plants. I have found them in marshy, semi-flooded areas as well as open fields.

This caterpillar becomes a sleek gray-and-brown moth. When they rest on a branch, they look just like a broken-off twig.

The Basics:

  • Does it sting? No.
  • What does it eat? Asters and other "weedy" plants.
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No.
  • Is it rare? No.
  • What does it turn into? It becomes a cool-looking gray moth.

10. White-Lined Sphinx (Hyles lineata)

This insect is a close relative of the tomato hornworm. They are both in the family Sphingidae, which is a very large group of moths that occurs worldwide. The white-lined sphinx is very common, and the caterpillars are often found feeding on a wide variety of plants, or crawling on the ground as they look for a suitable place to burrow down and pupate (sphinx moths do not typically spin a cocoon).

These caterpillars come in many colors and pattern forms; often, two white-lined sphinx caterpillars don't even look like the same species. The striped form pictured here is just one of the forms the larvae can take.

The Basics:

  • Does it sting? No. The horn on the tail is only for show.
  • What does it eat? Many plants and shrubs.
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Not usually, but if there are a lot of them, they can do damage.
  • Is it rare? No. This species is found almost everywhere.
  • What does it turn into? It becomes a big, beautiful moth, one of a large group known as "hawkmoths."
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, these are easy to raise. Keep a folded paper towel in the bottom of the container so it can pupate.

11. Azalea Caterpillar (Datana major)

These caterpillars are seldom found alone; they are one of many "gregarious" species that find safety in numbers and often occur in groups of several dozen. The azalea caterpillar eats—you guessed it—azaleas, and an infestation can essentially wipe out a garden.

This species has several relatives, most of whom occur in groups, including the "walnut caterpillar" and other common species. The moths are pretty but generally go unnoticed, since when resting they look exactly like a brown, curled-up leaf.

Control of azalea caterpillars generally means putting on garden gloves, picking the caterpillars off by hand, and smashing them into your compost pile. It will take a few minutes and is not exactly pleasant work, but chemicals and pesticides are seldom necessary for a localized infestation in a garden patch.

The Basics:

  • Does it sting? No.
  • What does it eat? Almost exclusively azaleas.
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Yes, since they occur in large groups.
  • Is it rare? No. This species is found almost everywhere.
  • What does it turn into? It becomes a medium-sized, furry, brown moth.
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Not easily, since they occur in groups.

12. Angle Shades Moth (Phlogophora meticulosa)

This moth occurs in Europe and North America, although it is seldom seen due to its very effective dry-leaf camouflage. The caterpillar is also well-camouflaged on its food plant, and is one of many green caterpillars that you might find in your garden.

The single white stripe is one way to identify it, but there are several similar species, so the best way to be sure is to raise it to the adult moth. You can do this by keeping it in a Tupperware or jar and providing fresh leaves of the kind you found it on. Put paper towels on the bottom of the container and it will eventually pupate and hatch into a moth. It does take time, but your patience will be rewarded.

The Basics:

  • Does it sting? No.
  • What does it eat? May common trees and shrubs.
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No.
  • Is it rare? No.
  • What does it turn into? It becomes a pretty brown moth that looks like a dead leaf.
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, these are easy to raise. Keep a folded paper towel in the bottom of the container so it can pupate.

13. Cross-Striped Cabbage Worm (Evergestis rimosalis)

This species is sometimes referred to as the "zebra caterpillar," which is confusing, since there's another species with that name, as well as a butterfly species called the zebra. In any case, this very common striped caterpillar often shows up in your garden in the company of other cabbage-eating caterpillars. If there are enough of them, they can do serious damage. Control means picking them off by hand, although you might also try diluted soapy water, which deters them from feeding.

For such a showy caterpillar, the adult moth is a very plain light brown, and it often goes unnoticed.

The Basics:

  • Does it sting? No.
  • What does it eat? Many plants, but it prefers cabbages and other crucifers.
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Yes.
  • Is it rare? No. This species is found almost everywhere.
  • What does it turn into? It becomes a small brown moth.
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, technically.

14. American Painted Lady (Vanessa virginiensis)

This butterfly is one of several similar species that can be very common at times. Its close relative, Vanessa cardui, is the kind that comes with butterfly kits and habitats. In these kits, it feeds on a prepared "paste" that provides all the nutrients it needs, and the adult emerges after a few months. Vanessa virginiensis looks very similar in its mature form, but its striped caterpillar is distinctive.

The adult butterfly is a beautiful, bright reddish-orange, and may mimic the similar-looking monarch butterfly (see above), which is thought to be protected by the toxic sap of the milkweed that it eats.

The Basics:

  • Does it sting? No. The spines are not poisonous.
  • What does it eat? Asters.
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Not usually.
  • Is it rare? No. This species is found almost everywhere.
  • What does it turn into? It becomes a large orange butterfly.
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, these are easy to raise.

15. Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae)

The gulf fritillary is one of the most beautiful butterflies in North America, with crimson wings marked by black and bright silver spots. It's common in the southern states but seldom seen in the North.

The orange-and-gray striped caterpillar is found on passionflower vines, and the toxic sap of the vines may protect this species from being eaten by predators; this may be why the butterfly is so brightly colored. The gulf fritillary is one of many species that may increasingly be found further north due to global warming trends.

The Basics:

  • Does it sting? No. The spines are not poisonous.
  • What does it eat? Almost exclusively vines in the Passiflora group.
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Not usually.
  • Is it rare? No, but it is not typically seen in northern states.
  • What does it turn into? It becomes a beautiful orange butterfly.
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, these are easy to raise.

16. Rosy Maple Moth (Dryocampa rubicunda)

This green-and-white striped caterpillar is sometimes found in groups on the lower branches of maple trees. It's closely related to the orange-striped oakworm (see above), but unlike that species, it does not typically occur in large enough numbers to do any real damage.

The moth that this caterpillar becomes is really spectacular—I have heard it referred to as the "Kool-Aid moth" due to its unusual combination of colors. A newly-emerged rosy maple moth is a truly beautiful thing, with rich yellow and bright pink wings and thick yellow "fur" on the body.

The Basics:

  • Does it sting? No.
  • What does it eat? Almost exclusively maples.
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Not usually.
  • Is it rare? No. This species is found almost everywhere, but is more common in the northern states.
  • What does it turn into? It becomes a beautiful pink-and-yellow moth.
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, these are easy to raise. Keep a folded paper towel in the bottom of the container so it can pupate.

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More Great Caterpillar Identification Guides

Furry Caterpillar Identification: Here's a guide to help you identify the furry, fuzzy, or hairy caterpillar you found.

Green Caterpillar Identification: This article has photos of many green caterpillars. Do you see yours here?

Black Caterpillar Identification: Many caterpillars are black or dark-colored. This guide will help you figure out what kind of caterpillar you have.

How to Safely Control Pest Caterpillars and Other Insects

I am often asked about killing caterpillars that are destroying garden plants. I myself prefer to pick them off by hand and smash them into my compost pile, but sometimes that's not practical. On occasion, I will use a product called diatomaceous earth.

Diatomaceous Earth (DE) Is an Eco-Friendly Pesticide

Diatomaceous earth kills pest insects and is safe for the environment—in fact, it's one of the more common substances found in nature. The way it works is pretty mind-blowing.

How Diatomaceous Earth Works

Diatomaceous earth is refined from dirt found in the bottom of old ocean, lake and stream beds. It's full of the fossilized exo-skeletons of microscopic animals called diatoms. The skeletons of these animals are made out of silica, the same basic component of sand.

Here's where it gets interesting. Diatomaceous earth is not toxic or poisonous—it kills insects because when they crawl over it, the jagged silica shells left behind by the diatoms make little scratches and cuts on the insect's underside. This damage is typically fatal.

Human Safety When Using DE

Diatomaceous earth is considered safe for humans, and much of it is "food grade" and actually offered as a dietary supplement. You must, however, avoid breathing it in, but that's not too difficult since you're typically outside when you apply it. Still, you may want to consider wearing a mask when you use DE.

All things considered, this product is the thing you want when you have an out-of-control caterpillar problem.

Food-Grade Diatomaceous Earth

Resources

© 2018 GreenMind Guides

Comments

Bethany on August 20, 2020:

Saw a few black and yellow striped caterpillars that had a small amount of spikes or hair not fuzzy (the stripes were parallel)

Jane Garrett on May 22, 2020:

Have found 3 caterpillars with rusty red stripes & thinner white stripes running length of caterpillar. Have black antennas and hairs, weren't fuzzy, are about 1 1/2 inches long. Were eating on spent pansies plants in Heath, TX, just east of Dallas. Are pretty& doing no damage, but I want to pull up old plants to replant & don't want to cause harm. How can I best deal with them.

GreenMind Guides (author) from USA on May 13, 2020:

Hi Aj that's the larva of a stingless wasp called a sawfly. They look just like caterpillars but they're not!

Aj on May 13, 2020:

I saw a yellow caterpillar with a black stripe down its back and I'm wondering what species it is?

here's the link to picture from online, just copy and paste-

https://encrypted-tbn0.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn%3A...

Naj on November 28, 2019:

I found one on my way to school turns out its the Giant Sphinx I had to let it go sadly.

Bill on September 16, 2019:

Had attack of Orange-striped Oakworm this summer. Is there any preventative action I can take before next summer to prevent an attack next year? They significantly attacked the tree one morning before I went outside.

Matt Cormons on August 25, 2019:

My young garlic plants are being eaten by a hairless black caterpillar with a lateral yellow stripe on each side. I would attach a photo if you tell me how. Any idea what it might be?

NBeautiful mass on August 17, 2019:

Beautiful mass if

Kevin on July 23, 2019:

I found a “zebra pattern” caterpillar with black and yellow stripes on the sides, black spots on both side of the back, running the length of the body, and an orange “head”. Do you know what it is?

Rose on July 20, 2019:

I saw a rusty red and white striped caterpillar with black antennae in Payson AZ. It looked wrinkly. 2” long. Not a wooly.

HELP ME on July 07, 2019:

Hi my carterpillar has yellow and white stripes and in the white stripes there are black zebra like stripes and in the yellow stripes there are black spots it has a few hairs by its head and more by its butt its head is yellow and we found it in Michigan. I have searched 3 different websites and 2 of your guides without finding anything!! Also the stripes go side to side not up and down thanks bye:)

Zebra?? on July 04, 2019:

Mine looks like a zebra striped one, but it has brown stripes too. On each brown stripe it has black little dots.

Wondering on July 03, 2019:

Mine had two pink stripes going down the side and it was bright green I did not touch it just in case. Anyone know what that is btw it was my volleyball quart which has sand

Curious on June 11, 2019:

Found one that’s green body and yellow striped with an orange head. Wish I could post a photo i hope this link to this photo works. I think it’s a moth. Trying to save them from my mother in law who is mad they’re eating her plants

Vix on May 23, 2019:

Mine looks boring but it was green last night and this morning it was black with white eyes and 3 strips one along the mittle and one on each side of that line and its black everywere else.

Aubrey on April 23, 2019:

I don’t really know what mine is because it, looks like the eastern tent caterpillar but instead of the white line on there backs mine is red so I don’t know if it’s just a rare one I didn’t touch it just Incase if it was poisonous.

Azaelia or oakworm? on September 12, 2018:

My caterpillar looks like the azalea caterpillar but it has spikes parallel to its legs and it bunches its middle and looks a little like a second head