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Bad hair day: Hairy, venomous caterpillar spotted in Virginia

The caterpillar's luscious locks hide venomous spines.

VIRGINIA, USA — The Virginia Department of Forestry is warning residents to keep their distance if they come across a puss caterpillar.

The puss caterpillar is one of the most venomous caterpillars in the United States, and its "hair" hides spines that can stick in your skin and cause painful reactions including rash, nausea and fever

The caterpillars eat oak and elm leaves, but they can be found in parks or near structures. The Virginia Department of Forestry says the caterpillars were spotted in a few eastern Virginia counties. If you come across the caterpillar leave it alone.

"[L]et its natural enemies control their populations— there are a number of other insects that will prey on them at different stages of their life cycle," The VDOF wrote in a Facebook post.

Experts say the sting from a puss caterpillar is similar to to touching hot metal, but reactions to the sting vary.

"Most people when they have a severe reaction liken it to getting up against hot metal, and it does leave kind of a sear mark in the shape of the caterpillar in some cases," said Dr. Floyd Shockley, Collections Manager for the Department of Entomology at the National Museum of Natural History.

Shockley said the caterpillar's sting is unique because it's a diffuse sting, "It's not just one poke.  You get dozens to hundreds of pokes all at once."

#SocialDistance away from this caterpillar! VDOF’s forest health team has received reports of the puss caterpillar in...

Posted by Virginia Department of Forestry on Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Shockley says the puss caterpillar and the southern flannel moth (what the caterpillars grown into) can be found from New Jersey to Florida and west to Arkansas and Texas.

"It's relatively uncommon for people to encounter it," Shockley said. "Although it's been around and you can find them in our area if you know where to look."

Shockley said the reason they're showing up in Virginia is a combination of a heavier than normal puss caterpillar cycle this year, and people getting outside more because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Shockley recommends if you do get stung by one of the coiffed creatures, cover the area with tape and rip it off quickly to remove spines that may have gotten embedded in the skin. He says you want to get the spines out quickly because the venom is still in the spines. Then use a cold compress to dull the pain.

"If you can give it a wide berth, do," Shockley said.

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