Outforia Quicktake: Key Takeaways
- Caterpillars are known for their peculiar defense mechanisms, such as camouflage, poisonous hairs, and mimicry, to deter predators.
- There are many fascinating types of caterpillars, ranging from fuzzy to spiky and colorful to camouflaged.
- Caterpillars eat a plant-based diet, with some species consuming toxic plants to become poisonous themselves.
- Some caterpillars are poisonous and can cause mild irritation or pain when touched.
- Predators such as birds, wasps, and beetles feed on caterpillars.
Caterpillars are so common that you’ve probably seen one in your lifetime. One might have likely fallen on you by mistake at some point.
All they need to do at this stage is to eat as much as possible. They need the energy to transform into beautiful butterflies or moths.
Did you know that caterpillars developed peculiar defense mechanisms to deter predators? Some can camouflage, and others have poisonous hairs. Some caterpillars mimic snakes, and others spot fake eyes for distractions.
This guide will present some fascinating types of caterpillars, from the fuzziest to the spikiest.
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The 33 Most Interesting Types of Caterpillars (Names, Pictures, Facts)
1. Saddleback Caterpillar (Acharia stimulea)
The saddleback has a unique shape, primarily green with brown at the ends and a white circle in the middle, looking like a saddle. What’s more interesting is that it has two pairs of horns at both ends.
These horns and the rest of the body contain urticating hairs full of venom. Plants, most spiders, and caterpillars have these stinging spines as a defense mechanism.
You can get a painful swollen rash or nausea if you accidentally touch one. Its sting is considered the most painful in North America.
Another fascinating defense mechanism is its mimicry. The saddleback caterpillar has two green or white dots that look like eyes. It is an excellent misdirection method for potential predators. The predators will look at its posterior while it can run the other way.
2. Stinging Rose Caterpillar (Parasa indetermina)
The stinging rose caterpillar or the rose slug caterpillar is the larva of brown moths. Their coloring is very bright. It spots a red-orange base with yellow tubercular spines coming out of its body.
By having spines, this caterpillar species warn predators that they might be poisonous. Their stings contain venom that can produce similar pain as the saddleback caterpillar.
Luckily, while this species is spread all over the forests of the eastern USA, it’s not that common. However, if you or an animal accidentally touch it, the tips of the spines will break in the skin and release venom. It can cause mild skin irritation.
3. Hickory Horned Devil Caterpillar (Citheronia regalis)
The hickory horned devil caterpillar is one of the largest caterpillars in the world. To get a better grasp of its size, it has been compared to the size of a large hotdog, at 6 inches (15 cm).
Their coloring is usually blue or green with a yellow spot at the end.
Its head is covered in orange spikes that make it look menacing. However, this caterpillar species is quite gentle.
As the name implies, this larva eats hickory leaves, cotton, ash, and hazel tree leaves. When it transforms into an adult, it becomes the regal moth, the biggest moth in the world.
4. Monarch Caterpillar (Danaus plexippus)
The monarch caterpillar is the most recognizable. Its back is full of black and yellow stripes. It’s also a medium-sized fat caterpillar, so it’s easy to spot it with the naked eye.
It has two long black antennas on its head, so you can easily distinguish the front from the back. When it’s ready, it will transform into the magnificent monarch butterfly.
One particular trait of this caterpillar is that it can eat milkweed plants, which is toxic for predators. This caterpillar must grow 2000 times its size until it becomes a butterfly.
5. Black Swallowtail Caterpillar (Papilio polyxenes)
This adorable chubby little caterpillar has quite the pattern. It is a green caterpillar with black stripes and yellow dots all over its body. It might appear similar to the monarch, but if you look up close, it doesn’t have the black antennas.
To protect itself from predators, it munches on milkweed plants. It makes itself taste bad so that predators will stay away.
As an adult, it transforms into a black swallowtail butterfly. It is the state butterfly for New Jersey and Oklahoma.
This caterpillar doesn’t have urticating hairs, so it can be easily handled. You can find it all over North America. Other familiar names include American swallowtail and parsnip swallowtail.
6. Oleander Caterpillar (Syntomeida epilais)
The oleander caterpillar is one hairy butterfly. It is pretty unique with orange coloring. It has thin black hairs with black bumps all over its long body. It’s most common in Florida on oleander flowers, as well as in Georgia.
They are quite a nuisance in southern Florida. They quickly destroy oleander gardens by munching too much. Although native to the Caribbean, they live in Florida all year round. Unfortunately, they die when temperatures drop during winter.
While it’s full of hairs, they are not urticating hairs. So, it won’t give you any paint if you handle them.
7. Queen Butterfly Caterpillar (Danaus gilippus)
The queen butterfly caterpillar is another good-looking species on our list. Its pattern is colorful with a black and white body. It has yellow dots and pointed spines that look like tentacles.
This stage only lasts two to three weeks. The primary purpose of this caterpillar is to eat as much as it can until it becomes a pupa. Then, it will emerge as a beautiful queen butterfly with stunning colors. They almost look like monarch butterflies.
8. Cinnabar Caterpillar (Tyria jacobaeae)
This cute little caterpillar resembles a bee. It has black and yellow bands all over its body. They also have black front legs and hairy spines all over their body. What’s unique about this species is that it likes to eat ragwort.
Ragwort is so toxic that it can poison horses or any other livestock if they ingest it. Its taste is quite bitter, so most animals avoid it. But not the cinnabar caterpillar. It eats so much that it becomes toxic itself.
9. Mullein Moth Caterpillar (Cucullia verbasci)
This is our first white caterpillar on the list. The mullein moth caterpillar has a white body with black and yellow patches all over its back. Near the head, it has three pairs of pointed feet; at the back, it has four pairs of black and white prolegs. It also has short spines on its back.
It reaches almost 2 inches (5 cm) long as a full-grown caterpillar. Gardeners can easily spot this species during July and August, munching on the Buddleia plant. It will leave the plant to pupate in the soil at maximum weight.
10. Cecropia Caterpillar (Hyalophora cecropia)
The cecropia caterpillar is a giant caterpillar that transforms into the cecropia moth. It makes this the biggest moth in North America. This plump larva can reach up to 4 inches (10cm). It is very long and has orange, blue, and yellow tubercles. The main body is a greenish color.
What’s interesting is that each nodule has tiny black spikes. It might look menacing, but in reality, this caterpillar is harmless. They don’t have urticating hairs, so they don’t sting. They also don’t bite if you handle them.
11. Elephant Hawk Moth Caterpillar (Deilephila elpenor)
This caterpillar looks like it’s staring at you with its big puppy eyes. But that’s just a trick to scare predators away. The elephant hawk moth caterpillar is a long brown insect with black spots and an oval head with eye spots. It received this name because its head also looks like an elephant’s trunk.
They also have a hook at the end of their bodies, which will scare the predators away. Then, when fully grown at about 3 inches (7.5 cm), they will leave their leaves to search for a place to pupate.
The elephant caterpillar can be spotted sunbathing in gardens during late summer. When scared, they move pretty fast by undulating its body. After that, they usually bury themselves in dry leaves, where they pupate. By the time winter ends, they become a moth.
12. Spicebush Swallowtail Caterpillar (Papilio Troilus)
The spicebush swallowtail caterpillar is highly recognizable. It has a light green body with dark spots and yellow markings over its body. Its main distinctive feature is two fake eyes on its head.
These caterpillars have two ways of defending themselves from predators through mimicry. The first way is when they are in the first stage of larvae. In the beginning, they are dark brown and look like bird droppings, so predators ignore them.
The second stage is when they are in their fourth or fifth instar. Instar is all the stages the caterpillar goes through before transforming into a pupa. At this stage, they are green with two fake eyes.
They resemble small snakes, and by mimicking them, they scare off birds. What’s more mesmerizing is that they will show a Y-shaped organ that’s red, looking like a snake’s tongue.
13. Zebra Longwing Butterfly Caterpillar (Heliconius charithonia)
These caterpillars got their name from their zebra-looking patterns. They have a whiteish body with black dots covered in long spikes. It makes the caterpillar easily noticeable among green plants.
This pointy caterpillar likes to feed on various passion flowers. They can evade the plant’s toxic hairs by chewing them off or covering them in silk mats. As they munch on this plant, they become toxic themselves. Predators will avoid eating the zebra caterpillars because they taste rotten.
14. Tobacco Hornworm Caterpillar (Manduca sexta)
The tobacco hornworm or the goliath worm is a large caterpillar with red horns. Its body is covered in seven white diagonal lines stopped by a black border. It is very popular with children as they keep it as a pet throughout the caterpillar stage.
People often confuse it with the tomato hornworm because of its resemblance and because they both like to eat tomatoes. However, the tobacco hornworm can quickly become a pest as they go through tomato and tobacco plants fast.
When it’s reached the end of the larval stage, you can see its heart through the skin. Then, the caterpillar will look for a place to pupate and burrow underground.
15. Black and Yellow Zebra Caterpillar (Melanchra picta)
This caterpillar looks like a yellow zebra with a black body and yellow stripes. You can distinguish its head from its tail because it’s big, round, and very red. The tail is also red but smaller in size.
Black and yellow zebra caterpillars like to feed in groups before first molting. Then, they each go their separate ways. You can spot one on cabbages and beets, their preferred plants during the day. When they get scared, they roll up and fall to the ground.
16. Yellow Spotted Tussock Moth Caterpillar (Lophocampa maculata)
The yellow spotted tussock moth caterpillar is an adorable fuzzy larva. They have a fluffy black head and tail with a soft yellow mid-part. Both ends are covered in spines. Despite its name, it doesn’t become the tussock moth but a tiger moth, so it doesn’t sting.
Because of the hair, they are called wooly bear caterpillars. They get the tussock name because they have black tussocks and tufts of hairs along the spine. They are tiny caterpillars, reaching up to 1 inch (2.5 cm) long.
17. Funerary Dagger Moth Caterpillar (Acronicta funeralis)
This one has such a gruesome name, probably because of its dreadful look. Its main body is completely black with yellow mouth-like markings on its back.
It’s also called the paddle caterpillar because of its long black spines, which resemble paddles on each side.
The larvae prefer to munch on apple, blueberry, and huckleberry leaves. They aren’t usually found because they like to be out of sight. Instead, they situate themselves on the upper side of leaves, not visible to the human eyes.
18. White Admiral Caterpillar (Limenitis arthemis)
The white admiral caterpillar has a dark brown head with a brown body during its first stages.
Towards the end, they get a deep brown-olive color with white spots in the midsection on its dorsal side. They have brown legs and prolegs. On their heads, they have two long and thick horns.
Its brown coloring helps them camouflage on wood and trees. They also deter predators by resembling bird droppings. You can spot these caterpillars on birch and willow trees. When the winter starts, it hibernates as it reaches its third larva stage.
19. Pipevine Swallowtail Caterpillar (Battus philenor)
Fully matured larvae are brown or black with orange or red lateral tubercles. They are also covered in thin hairs that give them a glossy appearance.
You can determine the sex of the larvae by sex-specific pits on the 8 and 9th abdominal segments.
Pipevine larvae munch on pipevines or Dutchman’s pipes. The plants got these names because they look like smoking pipes. The final stage is the adult butterfly called pipevine swallowtail or blue swallowtail. It’s a beautiful black butterfly with some blue spots at the end of its wings.
20. Azalea Caterpillar (Datana major)
This caterpillar is mainly found in Florida, munching on azaleas. They can quickly defoliate these plants from July through October before the gardeners spot them.
While they are hairy, they are harmless, and you can easily pick them up from plants.
In their first larva stage, they feed in a cluster for up to 10 hours daily. Then, they stay and feed on one leaf until it becomes a skeleton.
When the larvae mature, they are black with eight yellow stripes. In addition, they have red heads and legs.
21. Mourning Cloak Caterpillar (Nymphalis antiopa)
The mourning cloak caterpillar is one striking larva. It has a black body with eight red dots on its back. They also have red prolegs. The body is covered in short hairs with black spines. Its coloring lets predators know it tastes terrible.
The caterpillars gather together until they shed their first skin. They also perform siblicide, meaning they eat unhatched eggs.
After that, they shed five times until it becomes a fully grown caterpillar. When they are disturbed, they start twitching as a defense mechanism.
22. Scarce Dagger Caterpillar (Acronicta auricoma)
The scarce dagger caterpillar is fuzzy; you can recognize it with its yellow and orange hairs. Each of its segments is covered in bumps containing hairs. Depending on the larva stage, it can either be fuzzy orange or black with orange hairs.
The larvae feed on plants like oak, Rubus, and Calluna. When fully grown, it reaches 1.4 inches (3 cm) long. The adult stage is the scarce dagger moth that lives in the Palearctic.
23. Sycamore Tussock Caterpillar (Halysidota harrissi)
The sycamore tussock caterpillar is one of the most distinctive caterpillars in Europe and the British Isles. It’s also common in Mexico and the Eastern United States.
This caterpillar has a thick coat containing a variable mix of yellow, brown, and orange hairs. It also has black and white spots on its dorsal surface.
This caterpillar is most famous for falling off trees and landing on people. It even happened to me!
You can see this caterpillar in early autumn as they leave the trees to pupate. They get the sycamore name because they like to eat sycamore leaves and sometimes maples.
24. Woolly Bear Caterpillar (Pyrrharctia isabella)
True to its name, the woolly bear caterpillar is exceptionally hairy. It’s also called the banded woolly bear, woolly bear, or the woolly worm. It lives in the United States and southern Canada.
They usually have 13 segments covered in brown hairs in the middle and black heirs at the outer edges.
Although they aren’t venomous, handling them is discouraged. It does not cause inflammation or irritation. However, its spiky hairs can cause dermatitis in some people. When they get scared, they play possum. This means they rolling into a ball and then quickly crawling away.
The woolly bear caterpillar completely freezes during winter. The heart freezes first, then the gut, then the blood, and finally the rest of the body. Then, in the spring, it warms up.
25. Puss Caterpillar (Megalopyge opercularis)
The puss caterpillar has many names like the southern flannel, woolly slug, fire caterpillar, opossum bug, or tree asp. It is a rather hairy caterpillar with very long white hairs. It also has bright orange hair full of hairs and an orange pattern running down each side.
It looks like a tiny Persian cat, hence the name. Plus, in its first larvae stage, the hair is curly, making them very puffy. If you see this caterpillar, you shouldn’t touch it because it’s poisonous.
It has venomous spines that cause extremely painful reactions in humans. People describe the pain as similar to broken bone pain. Ouch!
26. American Dagger Caterpillar (Acronicta americana)
This caterpillar species is completely covered in yellow hairs. When the caterpillar reaches its final stages, the hairs become pale yellow or white. They also have long black hair coming out of their white hair. It has an overall rugged look.
The American dagger caterpillar reaches approximately 2 inches (5 cm) in its final stage.
Be careful when handling this species. People have reported them to cause mild skin irritation. However, scientists didn’t find evidence of venom in their hairs.
27. European Gypsy Caterpillar (Lymantria dispar dispar)
The European gypsy caterpillar lives in Europe, Asia, and many parts of the USA. You can distinguish this type of caterpillar by its spot pattern. Starting from its head and going down to its tail, it has 5 pairs of blue spots mixed with 6 pairs of red dots.
They usually hatch within a week. Even though there is enough food for all larvae, they quickly dispatch. They hang from silk threads and wait for the wind to blow them off on other leaves.
When it’s a newborn larva, it feeds during the daytime, but as it grows older, it becomes nocturnal. This species is a pest because the caterpillar eats over 500 species of trees and shrubs.
28. Silver-Spotted Tiger Caterpillar (Lophocampa argentata)
The silver-spotted tiger caterpillar is a pest that can cause severe damage. The red caterpillar has a red-brownish color with yellow or black hairs coming out from all its segments. Its unique look makes it seem like it has tiger stripes.
They like to feed on trees or shrubs with needle branches, covering them in webs. The webs are noticeable in the spring. They munch on Douglas-fir trees, but they can also go for pine, spruce, and actual fir trees.
29. Emperor Moth Caterpillar (Saturnia pavonia)
These green caterpillars are giant, with spike tubercles growing from all of their segments. Depending on the stage, these hairs are white, yellow, or pink. This tubby caterpillar reaches approximately 2.5 inches (6.5 cm) long.
When they emerge from their eggs, the caterpillars stick together and spread out as they age. With time they get beautiful colors like their adult form, the emperor moth.
However, the moths will be dark in color with yellow spots on their bodies that look like eyes.
30. Tiger Swallowtail caterpillar (Papilio glaucus)
The tiger swallowtail caterpillar has a distinct look as it sports two eyes on its head. The base color is a shade of dark green, yellow bands, and 4 green prolegs. It also has various blue dots all over its body and can reach up to 2 inches (5 cm) long.
From the moment it hatches, it will start eating its host plant. When it needs to rest, it will stay on a silk pad at the edge of the leaf.
To defend itself from predators, it releases a foul smell and pretend it’s a snake by sticking out a tongue-like membrane. This caterpillar turns brown when it’s ready to pupate.
31. Luna Moth Caterpillar (Actias luna)
The luna moth caterpillar is a green species with red spiky bumps covering its body. It has 5 instar stages, each lasting between 4 to 10 days.
Sometimes, after molting, it eats its exoskeleton. Although it has hairs, this species is not venomous and will not harm you.
This caterpillar will remain on the same tree until it’s ready to become a cocoon. First, it eats the leaves of walnuts, hickory, and paper birch trees. Then, it will climb down from the tree and pupate when it’s ready to evolve.
When females emerge, they fly to their tree of choice and wait for males.
32. Garden Tiger Caterpillar (Arctia caja)
This caterpillar is commonly known as a woolly bear because of how hairy and fluffy it is. A fully grown garden tiger caterpillar has a black head, long white hair, and black and orange hair. It also has white spots along its lower body.
This hairiness offers protection against predators such as birds and insects.
This species is known to overwinter and resume its growth in spring. They eat during the day and munch on many herbaceous plants. They also like to bask in the sun or search for places to pupate.
33. Cabbage White Butterfly Caterpillar (Pieris rapae)
This caterpillar is usually a greenish color with tiny black spots. It also has a slimy fuzzy appearance with a yellow dorsal line. It has the word cabbage in its name because they mainly munch on cabbage leaves until it pupates.
Their green color is an adaptation to evade predators. They blend in with their surroundings, with green leaves offering perfect camouflage.
What Do Caterpillars Eat?
One could say caterpillars are vegan, eating only plant-based food. Butterflies or moths lay eggs on leaves for hatchlings to have access to food right away.
They can eat walnuts, apple, blueberry leaves, cabbage, and passion flower leaves. Some go for milkweed plants and become toxic to predators.
There are also exceptions. Some caterpillars don’t just eat the leaves of a plant; they also go for the buds and seeds. In addition, the wax moth will lay its eggs inside beehives so that caterpillars can eat honeycombs.
Other caterpillars eat grass, and some go for barks and twigs. There are species, like the skin moth caterpillar, that eat the skin of dead birds and mice.
Another example of weird things they eat is ant grubs. The large blue caterpillars get carried by ants into their nest. Here, they have full access to the ants’ grub.
Are Caterpillars Poisonous?
There are some species of poisonous caterpillars. Since they’re small, they need to have some way to defend themselves against predators. So some caterpillars eat poisonous plants like milkweed to become toxic themselves.
When they are touched, they can cause mild irritation, and some species provoke pain. Most poisonous caterpillars are hairy.
How Many Eyes Do Caterpillars Have?
Most caterpillars have 6 eyes on each side of their heads, a total of 12. The caterpillar has a simple eye called stemmata. Their vision isn’t great, picking up only light and dark, sometimes polarized light. This group of eyes is called ommatidia.
Their vision improves when they become a butterfly. It still won’t see very well, but it can pick up more light than a caterpillar.
What Eats Caterpillars?
There are plenty of animals that prey on caterpillars. For example, canopy-dwelling birds feed on caterpillars that live on treetops. Woodpeckers and robins feed on caterpillars that live on the ground.
Predatory wasps like yellow jackets take caterpillars to feed their young ones. Wasps help gardens by keeping the caterpillar population in check. Ladybird beetles also like to eat caterpillars, so gardeners use them to get rid of caterpillars.
Fun Caterpillar Facts
Caterpillars don’t have teeth, but they have mandibles which are tooth-like mouthparts. They can bite and chew leaves and usually eat from side to side.
The only thing a caterpillar must do is eat until it’s fully grown. If it doesn’t eat enough, it doesn’t have the proper energy to finish its metamorphosis. As a result, some malnourished caterpillars can become butterflies but won’t be able to lay eggs.
The caterpillar stage is about growth; sometimes, it can increase its body weight up to 1000 times. As it grows bigger and bigger, the caterpillar molts to fit its new stage. They usually go through 5 or 6 stages then it’s time to pupate.
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Types of Caterpillars FAQs
What do green caterpillars turn into?
Green caterpillars can turn into moths or butterflies, depending on the species.
Why do caterpillars turn into butterflies?
A butterfly has four stages: egg, larvae or caterpillar, pupa, and adult. Caterpillars cannot reproduce, so they morph into a butterfly to carry on with their life.
What do caterpillars symbolize?
For English cultures, caterpillars symbolize luck and abundance. In Hinduism, caterpillars bring good luck to travelers.