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Peek Preserve: Puss Moth

July 11, 2011

Pretty cute, huh? Who would guess that this fuzzy little guy (found near our Peek Preserve) — in caterpillar phase — is one of the most toxic caterpillars in North America?

Megalopyge opercularis, also know as the puss moth or flannel moth, caterpillars spend the winter in cocoons attached to twigs then metomorphize into moths in late spring. The adult moths, with short lives of 5-7 days, deposit eggs on shrubs and trees; within days the larvae (caterpillars) emerge. The inch-long larvae are covered in long, luxuriant hair-like setae (hairs), making them resemble a tiny Persian cat, presumably the characteristic that gave the species its name.

Although called a stinging caterpillar, the insects’ venom is actually in spines connected to a poison sac and concealed by the outer hairy surface. When touched, the spines break off and remain in the skin, releasing the venom.  Intense throbbing pain develops within five minutes of contact. Other symptoms include headaches, nausea, vomiting, intense abdominal distress, and sometimes shock or respiratory stress!

While now quite common in New Jersey, this species was once unusual to find. (It’s range is usually Maryland down to Florida.) Scientists think global climate change may be responsible for its  move northward.

No reason to fear this furry creature as long as you look with your eyes only!

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