Furry Caterpillar Types and Identification Guide
Caterpillars are the immature stage of butterflies and moths. Most furry caterpillars eat leaves (though a few eat clothes), and almost all of them will eventually become moths.
During the warm months, it's not uncommon to find caterpillars crawling on the ground or hanging out on trees or bushes. This guide will help you identify the furry caterpillars that reside in North America.
Banded Woolly Bear (Pyrrharctia isabella)
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.
Raising a Woolly Bear Caterpillar
These caterpillars are not very easy to raise. They often overwinter as pupae, which makes them vulnerable to getting squashed or hurt.
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!
Farmers used to think the amount of orange on the caterpillar predicted the length of the coming winter. Legend has it that a wide band indicated a mild winter, whereas a narrow band predicted a harsh one.
Yellow Woolly Bear (Spilosoma virginica)
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.
Salt Marsh Caterpillar (Estigmene acrea)
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.
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.
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.
Sycamore Tussock (Halysidota harrisii)
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 (Acronicta americana)
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 (Lophocampa caryae)
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.
Raising a Hickory Tussock Caterpillar
You can raise these caterpillars into moths without too much trouble.
Giant Leopard (Hypercompe scribonia)
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. When disturbed, this species rolls into a ball and makes the sharp black spines protrude from its body.
Raising a Giant Leopard Caterpillar
Like the Wooly Bear, these caterpillars overwinter as pupae, 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.
Io Caterpillar (Automeris io)
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 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.
The Sycamore (Acronicta aceris)
This beautiful caterpillar is the only one in this guide from Europe. This creature is the beautiful larva of a plain gray moth. It's closely related to the dagger moths of North America.
Raising a Sycamore Caterpillar
If you happen to be in Europe and find one of these caterpillars, you should try to raise it to an adult. It gets its name from the kind of tree it eats, so you'll know right away what kind of leaves to give it.
Milkweed Tiger (Euchaetes egle)
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. This caterpillar becomes a very plain, brown moth.
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.
Southern Flannel (Megalopyge opercularis)
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.
Didn't See Your Caterpillar Here?
If you didn't see your caterpillar in this guide, have a look at one of my other caterpillar identification articles here on Owlcation:
Striped Caterpillar Identification: If your caterpillar has stripes, you might find it here.
Black Caterpillar Identification: This guide will help you identify black and dark-colored caterpillars, including many common species.
Green Caterpillar Identification: Many caterpillars are green to blend in with the leaves they feed on. Here are several that you might encounter.
North American Caterpillar Identification: This is a guide to the most common caterpillars in North America.
Good luck finding your critter!
Questions & Answers
Do you have a photo of a yellow wooly bear moth caterpillar ?
You can find one with a google search: Spilosoma virginica.Helpful 21
What is a white fluffy caterpillar called?
It could be a yellow woolly bear caterpillar.Helpful 33
what type of caterpillar is furry, yellow, and has equidistant black spots down each side of its body?
It sounds like a yellow woolly bear.Helpful 15
Are there poisonous caterpillars in Rhode Island?
Yes, but not many. You will rarely find one, but saddlebacks can sometimes be found on apple trees there.Helpful 8
Where does the caterpillar southern flannel live?
They occur throughout the eastern U.S. but are most common from Maryland to Florida and east to Texas.Helpful 4
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