Wig-Looking Poisonous Caterpillars Can Inflict Pain, Officials Warn

First, it was murder hornets. Now it’s stinging caterpillars.

As if there wasn’t enough to worry about in 2020, foresters in Virginia are warning that if you see a caterpillar that looks like a wig on a tree, don’t touch it.

The Virginia Department of Forestry said it had received reports of hairy-looking puss caterpillars in eastern Virginia. Its hairs are attached to a poisonous gland, said Eric Day, of Virginia Tech’s Insect Identification Lab.

Touching it could cause a painful reaction, the severity of which can vary, Mr. Day said. Other symptoms can include pain that comes in waves, a rash, fever, muscle cramps or swollen glands, according to the University of Michigan.

Symptoms should be monitored and people who are stung should use their own judgment about seeking medical attention, Mr. Day said.

He recommended taking a picture of the caterpillar and showing a doctor if symptoms worsen.

In people with severe reactions, “you’d think it was a much bigger critter,” Mr. Day said.

It’s also known as the southern flannel moth, but this caterpillar’s moth stage is nothing to worry about, Mr. Day said.

“The larva of this species is entirely covered by a thick carpet of long grayish-tan to dark brown hairs with a rusty stripe down the center of the back” and over all resembles a tiny mouse, Virginia Tech said in a fact sheet about the caterpillar.

These caterpillars, which eat oak and elm leaves, are typically found in parks or near structures, foresters said. It’s one of several stinging caterpillars in the country.

The warning from Virginia foresters comes a few months after Asian giant hornets, known as murder hornets, resurfaced in the Pacific Northwest. Though this hornet craves bee carcasses, its potent stinger has been linked to up to 50 human deaths a year in Japan.

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