Long hair, very cute, and dangerous

No, this isn't about teenage girlfriends! It's about the darling caterpillar we found near a big oak tree. We coaxed it into a bug box, but couldn't identify it that night. It was quite distinctive with its orange fauxhawk Mohawk hairstyle, orange curled tail, and baby sloth face.

Not knowing what it needed to eat, we couldn't keep it until it formed a cocoon, so we released it at the foot of the oak tree. It curled into a cute, cuddly ball.

We kept a polite distance, and let it uncurl when it was ready. Off it went climbing the tree, with us watching until we could no longer see it moving camouflaged against the bark and about twenty feet high.

Thankfully, no one ever petted our cutie. Last night I finally had a chance to identify it. It is one of the most poisonous of stinging caterpillars, so we were very lucky that no one got hurt!

The "asp" or puss caterpillar of the southern flannel moth, Megalopyge opercularis, is considered the most dangerous caterpillar in the U.S. The skin irritation can last from one hour to five days! It is found from Maryland to Mexico across the Southeast U.S. "Asp" is its Texas nickname, and the
Texas A&M Cooperative Extension field guide makes clear that it is more snake than puddy-tat. If, like me, you didn't even know there was such a thing as a stinging caterpillar, you'll be interested in the eMedicine information. As if we didn't have enough to worry about, there can be epidemics caused by airborne caterpillar hair dispersion! The North American Moth Photographers Group has excellent photos of the entire life cycle of the southern flannel moth.

And if one of them starts calling and text messaging your teenage son, be afraid. Be very afraid!

© 2007 Nancy L. Ruder

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