Black Fuzzy Caterpillar
Black Caterpillar with Spikes and Red Bands: What is it?
Did you find a black fuzzy caterpillar? Does it look like this? If so, you might have a giant leopard moth caterpillar, also known as a great leopard moth or an eyed tiger moth (scientific name: Hypercompe scribonia). Take a look at the other pictures too, and you'll know for sure.
Caterpillar Description: The giant leopard moth caterpillar has black spikes (which are variously described as hairy, bristled, fuzzy, spiky, furry, or woolly) with red or orange bands around its body. Some think it looks like a woolly black bear.
What Will It Turn Into?
Moth Description: Your spiky black-and-red caterpillar will transform into a white moth with black circles or spots on its wings. Its abdomen will be blue and orange (not visible at rest).
We saw our first giant leopard moth caterpillar five years ago and are now in the process of raising our fourth moth. I'm sharing the information we've documented and collected through personal experience and research here.
This awesome photo is CC on Flickr by OakleyOriginals.
Have You Found One of These?
In this picture, you are seeing the rear end of the caterpillar.
Most Commonly Asked Questions About Great Leopard Moth Caterpillars
- Is this black fuzzy caterpillar poisonous? No.
- Can you touch it or handle it? Yes, you can handle it carefully.
- Will it sting you? No.
But keep reading and confirm the ID, because some bristly caterpillars can sting!
Before the Leopard Moth Caterpillar Looks Like That, It Looks Like This
Most people find these caterpillars when they are large and solid black with red bands around their bodies, but they didn't always look like that. Before they molt, while they are still small caterpillars, they are brown (or black) and red (or orange), and the bands aren't very noticeable. This is one of the first leopard moth caterpillars we found. We named it PeeWee—in this picture, it's about 3/4 inches long—but it didn't stay a peewee! They can grow bigger because they molt (see next section).
Is This the Type of Caterpillar You Found?
Is this the same caterpillar you've found?
Here's What That Caterpillar Turns Into: The Great Leopard Moth
Pretty amazing, huh? That's exactly what I thought. You may have never seen this moth (who could forget seeing this creature?) because they are nocturnal. The first time I saw one in person was after our first caterpillar went through metamorphosis. I've never seen one out in the yard just walking around. They must be good hiders during the day.
This awesome photo is CC on Flickr by Normanack.
The Molting Process: Here's a Molted Exoskeleton
How many times do they molt? I'm not exactly sure. I've seen at least two molts per caterpillar, but I think they may molt three or four times. I hope to one day have a concrete number to post here. The time between molts is called an instar for butterfly caterpillars, and I think it's the same name for moth caterpillars, but I'm still confirming that.
I remember the first time our Great Leopard Moth caterpillar molted. I was horrified! When I checked on it that morning, part of the caterpillar was on the branch and part was in the bottom of the large container. What happened? Did it break in half? That's what I thought for a split second. Then I realized that the piece in the bottom of the container was simply the molted outer skin and the part on the branch was the actual live and well caterpillar. It's very important to note here that before they molt, they will be very still for anywhere between one and two days. They are OK! This is simply part of the molting process. As a matter of fact, our current caterpillar is about to molt as I type and hasn't moved since yesterday. He's fine! I can't wait to see the shedded "skin." This picture is of a molted exoskeleton I found in a tree beside our house.
How Big Do They Get? About Three Inches Long
As far as caterpillars go, these get pretty big. They look even larger with those big bristly spikes. Here's Oscar. He grew to a length of about three inches, then shrunk a little before pupating.
The Giant Leopard Moth caterpillar has spikes (which are variously described as hairy, bristled, fuzzy, spiky, furry, or woolly) with red or orange bands around its body. Some think it looks like a woolly black bear.
How Long Does a Leopard Moth Stay in Its Cocoon?
When the time is right (only the caterpillar will know), it will start to build a web-like structure and make its cocoon. Sorry for the quality of this photo; I was shooting the picture through the clear container. In the cocoon, the caterpillars will make the miraculous change and eventually emerge as beautiful moths. They will be white with black spots and a bit iridescent.
We have documented that the Giant Leopard Moth will be in the cocoon for 23 days. I haven't seen this documented anywhere else on the web. However, I know temperature can affect this, and in cooler climates it may take longer than 23 days. Our records were taken during the heat of summer (June) in Florida.
How to Raise These Caterpillars: It Could Take Two Months or More!
If you have found a giant leopard moth caterpillar and want to see it change into a moth, you can. But there are some things you need to know to be sure the caterpillar gets what it needs to grow and then go through metamorphosis.
Update: I've decided to add a note here to Not Recommend keeping and raising the caterpillars. It takes a lot of dedication and cleaning. My best suggestion is to observe the caterpillar and let the little guy go to not endanger or alter its natural life. If you CAN commit to wandering through your yard every single day to gather fresh food, clean the cage etc etc then read on.
- First, you need to know what to feed your caterpillar—its diet. Caterpillars are ravenous! This is the most important thing: You need to know which plant it was on when you removed it. If it was on a plant, then that is the plant it was feeding on and that's what you need to provide for its diet. If the great leopard moth caterpillar was not on a plant, then you'll need to offer it a variety of plants to see what it will eat. There's a lot to say about this. Thankfully, unlike other caterpillars, the GLM will eat a variety of plants. I've had success with oak saplings, dandelion leaves, morning glory leaves and plants I don't even know the names of. Try different things until you see it munching down. If it won't eat, then it may be about to molt or even build its cocoon.
- Provide a large clear container with ventilation or a mesh container (see a good option below). We actually built a wooden framed box with mesh walls so it is almost like the caterpillar is in the open as it would naturally be. See options below for caterpillar habitats.
- Add a variety of sticks to the habitat so there's plenty for the caterpillar to crawl around on and make sure some of them stand up vertically. You need to add food along with these plants and sticks.
- Keep a fresh food supply available.
- Clean the cage regularly. All animals poop. Caterpillar poop is called frass and would usually fall to the ground away from the caterpillar. Since he's in a cage, you'll need to dump the container every couple of days. Simply pull out the sticks, food plants and caterpillar, dump the container and put everything back in. But if it's already started making the web structure or cocoon process, do not move anything at all.
Amazing Little Critter
These are really neat creatures. Their appearance is unusual, but fairly easy to ID online. They will curl up into a ball when feeling threatened, exposing those red bands. They don't bite or sting, and kids love them. I've noticed, on occasion, they will be motionless for a concerning amount of time, then take off again as usual. Sometimes this means they are molting, but not always. Maybe they are resting? Or sleeping? Or this might be a way to protect themselves from being detected by predators. Here's a photo I took of our latest caterpillar. Isn't it cute? It's so neat how its legs cling to the thin plant stem.