With global warming and global travel comes the unprecedented movement of species between continents or creeping slowly northward as climes become more hospitable. As general xenophobes, we humans seem to react with nothing short of hysteria when a new species pops up in our region and seem to revel in declarations of their danger. This phenomenon seems to be particularly true when it comes to insects. I recognize that there is a certain logic to it. In the Northeast, where I hail from, there has undoubtedly been an increase in mosquito and tick born illnesses and this is certainly a concern. What I am dubious of is the new trend in articles (particularly popular among Facebook users) scaremongering about this or that esoteric insect species and imploring people to be hypervigilant lest they or a loved one fall victim. I have decided to do a little research on a couple of these maligned insects to see if there was any truth to these wild claims or if their species should vindicated.
The first insect on my list is the White Hickory Tussock Moth caterpillar, which while not an invasive species to the North East, was certainly fairly low profile until a few years ago when social media warnings began popping up about “a
poisonous black and white caterpillar” who’s hairs “embed in your skin and send poison throughout your body”. Soon to follow were images of people whose skin was blistered and boiled, huge swaths of their bodies covered in weeping sores. It was all very unsettling. Particularly when these little shaggy larva began showing up on the playground of the elementary school where I work. Suddenly I found myself becoming one of those voices of doom- my mind filled with images of children with hideously scarred faces, eternally jumpy when outdoors or when presented with a furry, tube-shaped object.
For days recess became a relentless grind of smashing caterpillars and chasing away children, to whom a caterpillar is like a shiny beacon toward which they are inextricably drawn. This state of affairs continued until one fateful afternoon, while on recess duty, I turned to find one of these demons resting on my shoulder staring at me with its tiny, beady eyes. I screamed and flicked it off, jumping about wildly in the universally recognized “I just had an unwanted interaction with a bug” dance. “Oh my god”, I thought with mounting dread, “I’ve been pillared!” I closed my eyes and waited for the end. Shortly, something began to happen on my arm: a slight reddening of the skin, an undeniable burning-tingling sensation, and then a few lumps appeared. Panicked, a coworker and I poured over google, trying to calculate how much time I had left. An hour passed, I applied some anti-itch cream onto the slightly bumpy rash, a rash much like the aftermath of an encounter with nettles. As the adrenaline faded I began to relax and soon forgot all about it. It was a bit uncomfortable but certainly better and much more short lived than say, poison ivy. As quickly as it had begun the rein of terror of the white hickory tussock moth caterpillar had ended… at least for me.
Tussock moths, like most caterpillars have to employ some sort of defense mechanism to protect themselves being that they are soft, meaty, food cylinders. Many caterpillars are poisonous and often brightly colored to warn predators not to attempt a taste. Others, like the tussock moth caterpillar, have taken things a little further and evolved urticating hairs or bristles that dislodge when they are threatened and cause irritation in a predator or unsuspecting victim.
Like with many venomous insects, the chemical make up of the particular species effect people to varying degrees. Certain people may have a more acute allergic reaction to the venom than others, but such extreme responses are generally uncommon. Much like with bees, the threat of a hickory tussock moth caterpillar is very low and can be mitigated through common sense (i.e. do not grab one and rub it enthusiastically onto your entire body or impulsively consume one) .
While white hickory tussock moths have for most part been vindicated, I do want to point out that there is a reason to be cautious of caterpillars in general because there are some that you really don’t want to mess with. Species such as the Puss Caterpillar and Saddleback Caterpillar, both native to the southern US, have a well earned reputation as menaces to society. The sting of both these caterpillars can be a painful affair, described by some as “burning like fire”.
Their venom is potent enough to potentially cause serious bodily harm; effects from their sting can range from painful swollen rashes, nausea, a drop in blood pressure or heart palpitations.
I do not mention these critters to cause alarm, but simply to point out that it is good to remember that some degree of caution is never a bad policy when it comes to wildlife. Caterpillars, like most creatures, are not out to get us- they have simply evolved various defenses because they are in many ways very vulnerable.
There are inherent risks in going out and exploring the natural word, but even a quick assessment reveals that the benefits far outweigh the risk . Please do your part to help quell the trend towards ignorance and alarmism that is an unfortunate side effect of our internet age. Go forth and proselytize tolerance for these misunderstood, tufty moth babies-you may just want to make sure you’ve got some calamine waiting in the wings.
Stay tuned for the next installment of “Husband, get me a goat” where I discuss the sinister “Kissing Bug”!