Attack Of The "Walking Toupees" As Venomous Puss Caterpillars Invade Virginia

Remind you of anyone? Larah McElroy/Flickr CC BY 2.0

If you’ve ever been in the woods and spotted what looks like a wig on the move, you might’ve seen a puss caterpillar (Megalopyge opercularis). These infamous floofs are so named for their likeness to a big fluffy cat and eventually transform into an equally fuzzy moth. While its abundance of fur might look ripe for a petting, touching these guys is a seriously bad idea as beneath that shaggy coat lies an arsenal of venomous spines, earning them the title of Most Dangerous Caterpillar in the US.

Now, it appears the forbidden floofs are invading Virginia as a boom in sightings of these normally rare-to-the-region caterpillars is leading experts to suspect they may be in the midst of an outbreak. As if we didn’t already have enough of those this year.

About an inch long, nature’s toupee comes in all varieties with some sporting straight hair while others have waves, all in a range of hues including brown, gray, and white. Its appearance shifts with its life cycle, looking most voluminous as an early-stage larva and descending into more of a lockdown bad hair day around the middle instar stage. Whilst it may appear to have all the attributes of a lustrous hairpiece (this one appears to be sat atop Donald Trump's head), the “fur” on these beasties is stuffed full of venomous spines that trigger painful reactions when they come into contact with human skin. 

Things only get fluffier as the puss caterpillar turns into a moth. Patrick Coin/Wikimedia CC BY 2.5

Puss caterpillars and their resulting moths aren’t usually found in Virginia, being more common in areas such as Florida, Missouri, and Texas, but according to a Facebook post from the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) there have been multiple sightings.

"#SocialDistance away from this caterpillar!" they warn in the post.

"VDOF’s forest health team has received reports of the puss caterpillar in a few eastern Virginia counties... If you find the caterpillar, leave it alone and let 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."

Though she be but little (and fluffly) she is fierce. Brett_Hondow/Pixabay

Symptoms from contact with a puss caterpillar can range from mild to severe, with common complaints including localized swelling, vomiting, and fever. In extreme conditions, a hefty dose of the caterpillar’s venom can lead to shock, which can be fatal if left untreated. The VDOF hopes that the natural predators of these dangerous critters might be enough to curb the outbreak, but if reports of injuries become more frequent it may mean that more proactive intervention is required.

So, if you’re out walking, please don’t get caught by the fuzz. Some things in life are so fluffy you could actually die.

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