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Furry Caterpillars: An Identification Guide

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Furry Caterpillar Types and Identification Guide

Furry Caterpillar Types and Identification Guide

A Guide to Furry Caterpillars

Welcome! This guide will help you identify 16 furry caterpillars that reside in North America (and a bonus caterpillar from the British Isles) and give you tips on how to raise them. It will tell you if your caterpillar can sting or cause an allergic reaction, or if it is rare. For every furry caterpillar on this list, I have a photo of the adult moth or butterfly.

Identification Chart for the Furry Caterpillars in This Guide

NameColorHabits

Lymantria dispar (Gypsy moth)

red and blue raised bumps

major pest; can defoliate forests

Banded woolly bear

black with red bands

moves quickly; often crosses roads

Yellow woolly bear

pale yellow to dark orange

common on roadside weeds

Salt marsh caterpillar

mottled orange and black

found on marsh plants

Buck moth

large, spiny, red-black

occurs in colonies, stings

Sycamore tussock

dense white-yellow fur

often found on tree trunks in fall

American dagger

white fur with black hair "pencils"

found roaming in late summer

Hickory tussock

white fur with black spots along side

found on hickory trees

Giant leopard moth

very sharp black spines; red bands

curls up when threatened, showing red bands

Io giant silk moth

Green, spiny, red and white stripe

stings; related to buck moth

Milkweed tiger moth

white, orange and black tufts

found in groups on milkweed

White-marked tussock moth

look for four white tufts on back and red head

common in urban areas on ornamentals

Southern flannel (puss) moth

very dense fur in a "pompadour"

looks like Elvis's hair; STINGS

Tent caterpillars

sparse hair; lines along body

occur in tent nests on trees and shrubs

Forest tent caterpillar

Blue and orange with white spots along back

Often found crawling on the ground

Fall webworm

pale green with sparse hairs

occurs in tent nests on trees

The sycamore

bright orange pointed tufts

European; related to dagger moths

The drinker

Large; tufts along side of body

European; named for alleged drinking habits

Lymantria dispar (Gypsy Moth) Caterpillar

Lymantria dispar (Gypsy Moth) Caterpillar

Female European Gypsy Moth

Female European Gypsy Moth

Male European Gypsy Moth

Male European Gypsy Moth

Lymantria dispar (Gypsy Moth)

Size: 4–5 cm

Hosts: a variety of hardwood trees, including apple, alder, hawthorn, oak, poplar, and willow

Range: Native to Europe and Asia, this species has spread to North America. Specimens are present from New England west to Michigan and south to Virginia, and from California north to British Columbia.

Identifying Features:

  • five pairs of blue dots along the back
  • six pairs of red dots along the back
  • short tufts of black setae emerging from each dot
  • long, thin, beige hairs along the sides, front, and back

While these fuzzy little guys may look cute, their species is best known for the incredible damage they do to deciduous forests in various parts of the world. The name "gypsy moth" has been retired in favor of the Latin name, but this species is still one of the most debilitating tree defoliators in the U.S. (with over 500 preferred host species).

Note: Avoid touching these caterpillars with your bare hands, as their setae have been known to cause allergic reactions.

Raising European Gypsy Moth Caterpillars

Raising invasive pest species is about the same as encouraging the destruction of indigenous trees, and the animals who depend on those trees for food. Please do not raise gypsy moth caterpillars!

Woolly Bear Caterpillar

Woolly Bear Caterpillar

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Woolly Bear Moth

Woolly Bear Moth

Banded Woolly Bear (Pyrrharctia isabella)

Size: 5.7 cm

Hosts: herbs, birches, clover, corn, dandelions, elms, maples, grass, sunflowers, and many more

Range: throughout the USA and southern Canada

Identifying Features:

  • 13 segments
  • short bristles in a black-orange-black pattern

Also known as the woolly worm or the Isabella tiger moth, this little guy is one of the most common furry caterpillars and the easiest to find. They have 13 segments and are rusty orange in the middle and black on the ends. These caterpillars sometimes venture out of the bushes to make cocoons (which include the stiff bristles from their bodies!), and you might spot them crossing the road when driving.

Note: Take care when handling these caterpillars. While they may look soft, their "fur" is actually made of stiff bristles that can result in a hand full of little slivers (akin to those from fiberglass insulation) upon handling. While some people report no issues touching these cats and their cocoons, it's better to be safe than sorry!

Raising a Woolly Bear Caterpillar

These caterpillars are not very easy to raise. They often overwinter as larvae, which makes them vulnerable to getting squashed or hurt.

If you want to give it a shot, you must create a comfortable living container for your woolly bear. This can be anything from the bottom of a liter soda bottle to a large Tupperware. Line the bottom with soil and grass, and add a few leaves for food and sticks to crawl on. (Ideally, all of these should come from where you found the woolly bBear). Cover the container, but make sure to poke a few holes in whatever lid you choose. Then place the container outside.

Note: Don't worry about putting it somewhere warm in winter—banded woolly bears hibernate (and freeze almost solid!) when temps drop, then "thaw" out again when spring arrives. You don't need to feed them during this time.

Yellow Woolly Bear

Yellow Woolly Bear

Yellow Woolly Bear Moth

Yellow Woolly Bear Moth

Yellow Woolly Bear (Spilosoma virginica)

Size: 5 cm

Hosts: many garden plants, field crops, and weeds, as well as vegetables such as asparagus, carrot, eggplant, pea, sweet potato, and more

Range: throughout North America, but most predominant on the East Coast

Identifying Features:

  • short bristles similar to those of the banded woolly bear
  • a range of colors, anywhere from solid beige or rust to a striking black-yellow-black pattern with long white hair pencils

The yellow woolly bear is the most common caterpillar in North America. These furry little guys eat all kinds of plants and weeds, which means that they can be found almost anywhere. The name “yellow woolly bear” is a little misleading, however, because they can be any color from almost white to dark orange.

Raising a Yellow Woolybear Caterpillar

The good thing about these insects is that they're really easy to raise to an adult. They'll spin a cocoon among the leaves of their food plant or among leaves on the ground. The yellow woolly bear moth is very beautiful. It has pure white wings with tiny black spots, and orange-black spots along the sides of its furry, white body.

What Are Caterpillars?

Caterpillars are the immature stage of butterflies and moths, order Lepidoptera. They are part of a 4-stage life cycle called "complete metamorphosis." Caterpillars are the "eating stage" – that is, they exist to eat and store up fat for the adult form. Caterpillars do not mate or lay eggs, but they do shed their skin as they get bigger and bigger. This is called "molting," and each size stage is called an "instar."

Most furry caterpillars will become moths. Almost all caterpillars, furry or not, eat leaves (the few species that eat holes in your sweaters are the exception to this rule).

Some furry caterpillars can sting or cause allergic reactions upon contact, so take care when handling any fuzzy or furry caterpillars, no matter how harmless and cute they might seem.

Note: The sizes and descriptions in this article refer to mature larvae. Caterpillars are extremely variable in appearance; they molt up to five times before pupation and look different at each stage (or instar).

Now let's identify your caterpillar!

Salt Marsh Caterpillar

Salt Marsh Caterpillar

Salt Marsh Moth

Salt Marsh Moth

Salt Marsh Caterpillar (Estigmene acrea)

Size: 5.5 cm

Hosts: a variety of vegetable and field crops, as well as weeds. Preferred vegetables and field crops include bean, cabbage, corn, tomato, alfalfa, cotton, soybean, tobacco, and others

Range: throughout the USA, with some specimens in Central America and Canada

Identifying Features:

  • short–medium bristles
  • dark coloration, anywhere from deep rust to charcoal gray
  • tiny black spots between each segment's bristles

This caterpillar looks a lot like the yellow woolly bear, but you can tell them apart because these caterpillars have black spots all along the sides of their bodies, and they're usually a darker orange-red than yellow woolly bears.

Note: Some people are sensitive to the fur of these caterpillars. If you handle them a lot, you may get an itchy rash. It's never serious, though, so don't worry too much.

Raising a Salt Marsh Caterpillar

These caterpillars are really easy to raise to adults. They eat a lot of different leaves (but be sure you always give them leaves from the same plant you found them on!). If you give them the right leaves, they'll eat for a while and spin an orange cocoon. The adult moth that hatches out is really beautiful, with pale orange and white wings.

furry-caterpillar
Buck moth caterpillar showing toxic spines

Buck moth caterpillar showing toxic spines

Buck Moth Caterpillar (genus Hemileuca)

Size: 6 cm

Hosts: generally oaks, but they may occur on other plants

Range: throughout the USA, with many species in Central America

Identifying Features:

  • short–medium bristles
  • dark coloration, anywhere from deep rust to charcoal gray
  • look for rosettes of spines on the back; these are toxic!

This species can sting! Envenomation by a buck moth caterpillar is not ypically severe, but it may be as intense as a bee sting. Allergic individuals should be aware of these caterpillars and act accordingly.

Note: Buck moth caterpillars often occur in groups, and are known to congregate on the trunks of the trees on which they feed. They are slow-moving and "heavy," with a robust appearance.

Adult buck moths are attractive insects with bold black-and-white wings and red "fur" on the abdomen.

Adult buck moth

Adult buck moth

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Sycamore Tussock Caterpillar

Sycamore Tussock Caterpillar

Halysidota harrisii Moth

Halysidota harrisii Moth

Sycamore Tussock (Halysidota harrisii)

Size: 3 cm

Hosts: sycamore leaves

Range: southeastern Canada, the Eastern United States (except Florida), and northeastern Mexico

Identifying Features:

  • light yellow-white bristles along the whole body
  • longer setae near the feet
  • two pairs each of white and orange hair pencils near the head
  • one pair of white hair pencils near the rear

This furry caterpillar is most commonly found crawling up and down tree trunks. The sycamore tussock is a yellowish-white caterpillar with long "hair pencils" on the ends of their bodies—two pairs of white and two pairs of orange near the head, and one pair of white toward the rear. If you find one crawling on a tree trunk, it's probably looking for a place to make a cocoon.

Raising a Sycamore Tussock Caterpillar

If you put one of these caterpillars in a Tupperware bin with a folded paper towel, it will likely make a cocoon.

American Dagger Moth Caterpillar

American Dagger Moth Caterpillar

American Dagger Moth

American Dagger Moth

American Dagger (Acronicta americana)

Size: 5 cm

Hosts: a variety of trees, such as alder, ash, birch, elm, hickory, maple, oak, poplar, walnut, and willow

Range: eastern North America

Identifying Features:

  • "fluffy" whitish-yellow hair
  • five long black hair pencils along the body (two pairs near the head and a single hair pencil near the rear)
  • shiny black head

If you find a furry caterpillar that's white with skinny black horns (or hair pencils) on the ends, then you've found an American dagger caterpillar. They eat oak and maple, and when they're ready to spin a cocoon, they usually walk down the trunk of whatever tree or bush they are residing in.

Raising an American Dagger Caterpillar

You will most likely find this caterpillar on the trunk of a tree. You can keep this caterpillar and it will spin a cocoon. The moth is a pretty, grey creature with pale and dark markings.

Hickory Tussock Moth Caterpillar

Hickory Tussock Moth Caterpillar

Hickory Tussock Moth

Hickory Tussock Moth

Hickory Tussock (Lophocampa caryae)

Size: 4.5 cm

Hosts: various trees, including ashes, elms, hickories, maples, and oaks

Range: From Nova Scotia to North Carolina, north to Ontario, and west to Wisconsin, and Texas. Predominantly absent from the Midwest.

Identifying Features:

  • long, fluffy white setae along the sides, front, and rear
  • four long black hair pencils (one pair on each end)
  • white back with black pattern ("diamonds" made of short black setae interspersed with black ovals)

These caterpillars are very commonly found late in the summer, when you might find them crawling around your porch or garage. The moth these little black-and-white cats become has beautiful wings with brown, cream, and yellow spots.

Note: However cute these little guys might look, their hairs (setae) are barbed and venomous, so avoid touching them with your bare hands. While coming into contact with their setae won't kill you, it can cause a serious rash and allergic reaction.

Raising a Hickory Tussock Caterpillar

You can raise these caterpillars into moths without too much trouble. Just remember not to touch them with your bare hands.

Giant Leopard Moth

Giant Leopard Moth

Giant Leopard Moth Caterpillar

Giant Leopard Moth Caterpillar

Giant Leopard Caterpillar When Threatened

Giant Leopard Caterpillar When Threatened

Giant Leopard (Hypercompe scribonia)

Size: 5 cm

Hosts: broad-leafed plants, such as violet, honeysuckle, magnolia, lilac, and dandelion

Range: common throughout the eastern and southern USA, and from New England stretching down to northernmost Mexico

Identifying Features:

  • thick black setae ringing each segment
  • red bands between each segment

When disturbed, this species rolls into a ball and makes its sharp spines protrude from its body.

Note: Some caterpillars aren't actually "furry," like this one. What looks like thick black fur is actually a dense coat of sharp spines that can deal a painful poke if you squeeze the caterpillar too tightly. So take care to be extra gentle when handling these cats.

Raising a Giant Leopard Caterpillar

Like the woolly bear, these caterpillars overwinter as larvae, so they're hard to raise into adults. It's a shame because the adult giant leopard moth is one of the most beautiful moths in North America.

Cool Video of the Giant Leopard Moth Caterpillar

Io Caterpillar

Io Caterpillar

Female (Upper) and Male (Lower) Io Moths

Female (Upper) and Male (Lower) Io Moths

Io Caterpillar (Automeris io)

Size: 6 cm

Hosts: various trees and plants including hackberry, mesquite, currant, blackberry, pear, maple, alder, poplar, willow, and wisteria

Range: From Maine west across southern Canada to southeastern Manitoba, and as far southeast as Colorado. South to Florida and the Gulf states, as well as Texas and New Mexico. Some specimens found in Mexico.

Identifying Features:

  • bright green body and setae (some of which have black tips)
  • red-bordered white line along the sides of the body (top red border is much thicker than bottom)
  • patches of white-speckled red between each set of legs
  • This caterpillar STINGS

The Io caterpillar grows up to be a very beautiful moth, with huge eyespot markings on the hind wings that it flashes to scare away birds and other predators. If you find one, consider yourself lucky, but don't pick it up with bare hands!

Note: Be careful when looking for the Io caterpillar. This insect is poisonous! A prick from one of its venomous spines feels like a bee sting. While being pricked is not life-threatening, it can really hurt.

Raising Io Caterpillars

You'll need a box of latex or non-latex gloves to raise these guys. Be sure never to touch them without gloves on (even their empty cocoons) and make sure to raise them in a contained area where they won't escape and "sting" anyone. Apart from that, raising these cats isn't very hard, and the moths they become are absolutely stunning.

Milkweed Tiger Moth Caterpillar

Milkweed Tiger Moth Caterpillar

Milkweed Tiger Moth

Milkweed Tiger Moth

Milkweed Tiger (Euchaetes egle)

Size: 3.5 cm

Hosts: milkweed

Range: from southern Canada south through Texas and Florida

Identifying Features:

  • sprouts of setae in rows along the body (a single row of black sprouts along the sides, front, and rear; several pairs of white sprouts, which are generally longer, on the sides and top; many pairs of orange sprouts, sometimes alternating light and dark, along the top of the back)

Also known as the milkweed tussock moth, this cool-looking caterpillar is one of the few larvae that feed exclusively on milkweed. The plant protects itself from most attackers by having poisonous, milky sap. Most insects can't digest this strong sap, but a few can, including this one and the world-famous monarch butterfly, which feeds on milkweed and nothing else. This striking caterpillar lives in groups on milkweed plants and drops to the ground when it feels threatened.

Why Do They Eat Milkweed?

This unique diet makes these caterpillars (and the winged creatures they later become) poisonous to would-be predators, but while their colorful fur makes them easily recognizable as toxic during their larval stages, what happens when they become moths?

Unlike monarch caterpillars, which retain their striking coloring as butterflies, the milkweed tiger caterpillar becomes a very plain, brown moth. Their main predators are bats, so these cats' coloring has no effect, but the milkweed tiger moth has come up with a brilliant solution. They've evolved an organ that emits an ultrasonic signal warning bats that any attempt to make them into a meal will result in a nasty, toxic meal. Not too shabby!

Raising Milkweed Tiger Caterpillars

As long as you provide a shelter with reasonably similar conditions to those found outdoors (e.g. a screen porch), these guys aren't too difficult to raise. Just give them plenty of milkweed to feast on and perhaps a bit of shredded paper to provide extra shelter for their cocoons.

Milkweed Tiger Caterpillar

Milkweed Tiger Caterpillar

White-Marked Tussock Moth Caterpillar

White-Marked Tussock Moth Caterpillar

White-Marked Tussock Moth

White-Marked Tussock Moth

White-Marked Tussock Moth (Orgyia leucostigma)

Size: 3.5 cm

Hosts: over 140 known hosts, including alder, apple, balsam fir, birch, and larch

Range: Eastern North America

Identifying Features:

  • bright red head (with two long black "antennae") and two red glands towards the end of the abdomen
  • four thick tufts of white, grey, or yellow hair on the first four abdominal segments
  • broad, yellow-bordered black stripe along the back
  • fluffy tufts of whitish setae near their legs
  • one long black hair pencil at the end of the abdomen

This snazzy species is found on trees in urban areas. They're indiscriminate eaters—they go as far as munching on decorative hawthorns and acacias—and when populations soar, these cats can defoliate entire trees.

Note: White-marked tussock moth caterpillars have irritating spines that can cause rashes, so handle them with care (and gloves!).

Raising White-Marked Tussock Moth Caterpillars

Seeing as these guys aren't picky eaters, they aren't too difficult to raise. Just create a comfortable environment for them, give them plenty of food, and let them grow!

Western Tussock Moth Caterpillars

Western Tussock Moth Caterpillars

Western Tussock Moth (with cocoon)

Western Tussock Moth (with cocoon)

Western Tussock Moth (Orgyia vetusta)

Size: 3 cm

Hosts: many western trees, especially pines

Range: Western North America

Identifying Features:

  • black head
  • four thick tufts of white, grey, or yellow hair on the first four abdominal segments
  • bright red "bumps" contrasted with yellow markings along body
  • fluffy tufts of whitish setae near their legs
  • one long black hair pencil at the end of the abdomen

This species is obvioulsy a very close relative of the white-marked tussock moth (above). The only important difference between the two is geographical; they inhabit two different sides of the Continental Divide in the US.

Note: Like white-marked tussock moth caterpillars, these have irritating spines that can cause rashes, so handle them with care (and gloves!).

Southern Flannel Moth Caterpillar

Southern Flannel Moth Caterpillar

Southern Flannel Moth

Southern Flannel Moth

Southern Flannel (Megalopyge opercularis)

Size: 3.5–4 cm

Hosts: trees and shrubs, such as almond, apple, hackberry, oak, orange, pecan, persimmon, and rose

Range: From Maryland south to Florida and west to Missouri and Texas. Occasionally found in New York and Pennsylvania.

Identifying Features:

  • fluffy hair (ranging in color from fiery orange and golden brown to grey-flecked black)
  • long, hairy tail
  • bright orange streak running along each side (variable)
  • curly hair (in young larvae)

Watch out for this one! The Southern Flannel caterpillar—also called the puss caterpillar or the asp—has one of the most painful stings of any insect in North America. It may look like Donald Trump's hair on a good day, but under those flowing brown locks are hidden rows of stinging spines.

They sometimes drop out of trees and may land on a person's arm or neck. If that happens, it's going to be a long day. The sting gets worse and worse over several hours before finally fading away. Allergic people may need to go to the emergency room.

Stung by a Puss Moth Caterpillar!

Western Tent Caterpillar Nest

Western Tent Caterpillar Nest

Female (left) and male (right) Western Tent Caterpillar Moths

Female (left) and male (right) Western Tent Caterpillar Moths

Western Tent Caterpillar (Malacosoma californicum)

Size: 4.5–5 cm

Hosts: various tree and shrub species, including aspen, crabapple, mahogany, poplar, and willow

Range: from southeastern Canada to New York and west to the Pacific Coast

Identifying Features (extremely variable):

  • pale blue head
  • orange- or black-bordered stripe of whitish blue dashes (one per segment) along the back
  • pale blue or orange stripes (with clear markings on each segment) along the length of each side
  • line of fine orangey hairs along the sides, front, and rear (just above the legs)

Ever driven past a tree full of webs and shuddered at the thought of a spider-filled nest? Fear not, they were likely just full of these cuddly cats (or a few others who build similar "tents").

These larvae build their tents shortly after hatching and spend much of their lives in them thereafter. Colonies live, feed, molt, and shelter in these tents, expanding them as they grow. Late instars leave the tent to feed solo.

Note: Some people have reported getting an allergic reaction from touching these caterpillars (as well as eastern and forest tent caterpillars), so if you have very sensitive skin, you may want to wear gloves when handling these little guys.

Eastern Tent Caterpillar

Eastern Tent Caterpillar

Eastern Tent Caterpillar Moth

Eastern Tent Caterpillar Moth

Eastern Tent Caterpillar (Malacosoma americanum)

Size: 5.7 cm

Hosts: trees in the rose family, such as apple, cherry, and crabapple

Range: from central eastern USA up to the Rockies, and Canada from Nova Scotia to Alberta

Identifying Features:

  • solid white stripe along the center of the back
  • patterned blue stripes along each side
  • tufts of hair (from whitish to rusty brown) below each blue stripe

These caterpillars begin work on their tents very soon after hatching. They are social insects, and caterpillars from one egg mass (or two or three, in large colonies) will stay together and spin a tent in the crotch of a tree. This is where they shelter in the rain or heat.

Raising Eastern Tent Caterpillars

Raise these cats just like their Western cousins!

Forest Tent Caterpillar

Forest Tent Caterpillar

Forest Tent Caterpillar Moth

Forest Tent Caterpillar Moth

Forest Tent Caterpillar (Malacosoma disstria)

Size: 4.5 cm long

Hosts: basswood, gum, oak, plum, and trembling aspen (depends on the region)

Range: present throughout most of the USA and southern Canada

Identifying Features:

  • line of white, footprint-shaped markings along the center of the back
  • broad black- and yellow-bordered blue stripe along each side
  • tufts of whitish hair below each blue stripe

These are the most widespread indigenous tent caterpillars in North America and are serious defoliators of deciduous hardwood trees. Unlike other tent caterpillars, they don't construct tents. Instead, they spin silken mats on trunks and branches and use them to rest or molt.

Raising Forest Tent Caterpillars

Raise these little guys the same way you would Western or Eastern tent caterpillars.

Fall Webworm

Fall Webworm

Fall Webworm Moth

Fall Webworm Moth

Fall Webworm (Hyphantria cunea)

Size: 2.5 cm

Hosts: nearly 90 of species of deciduous trees, including, walnut, cherry, and crabapple

Range: present throughout the USA and in southern Canada

Identifying Features:

  • pairs of warts along the back (both the warts and head capsules are black in northern regions and orange in southern regions)
  • whitish tufts of setae protruding from each wart

These caterpillars construct nests similar to those of the Eastern Tent Caterpillar, with one major exception—while ETCs build their tents at tree crotches, Fall Webworms construct theirs over the ends of tree branches. As the tents are somewhat transparent, you will see caterpillars, partially eaten leaves, and droppings within.

Raising Fall Webworms

These caterpillars are fairly hardy, so they aren't too difficult to raise. They are unique, however, in that they incorporate bits of plant litter into their cocoons, so be sure to provide plenty of bark and leaf litter in their container.

Here's a Video of the Fall Webworm's Web

Which Caterpillar is Your Favorite?

Sycamore Caterpillar

Sycamore Caterpillar