You can look, but don’t touch—meet Alabama’s venomous caterpillars

Caterpillar Alabama
Steer clear of the Saddleback Caterpillar, its green “shirt” is a dead giveaway. Photo via The University of Alabama, Dr. John Abbott

While most are completely harmless, there are a handful of venomous caterpillars native to Alabama that can really pack a punch. We went straight to the expert, and caught up with Dr. John Abbott at The University of Alabama to get the scoop on these guys.

Venomous caterpillars in The Yellowhammer State

Caterpillar Alabama
Do not mess with the Asp Caterpillar, or you might be on your way to the ER. Photo via The University of Alabama, Dr. John Abbott

So, who are we watching out for? Well, according to Dr. Abbott, there are roughly a dozen species of caterpillars across our state that you wouldn’t want to mess with. And while some are more dangerous than others, he’s highlighted a few to keep your eyes peeled for.

  • IO Moths and Buck Moth Caterpillars: members of the giant silk moth family. These guys give off an immediate warning, with very obvious spikes and threatening coloring covering their bodies. Buck Moth stings cause immediate, stinging pain that can radiate for up to one week.
  • Saddleback Caterpillars: one of the most common stinging caterpillars in Alabama. Keep your eyes peeled for its signature green “shirt” and saddle-like pattern on its back. Touching its venomous hairs will leave you with a sting akin to a honeybee’s.
  • Asp Caterpillars: we saved the most dangerous for last. Asp caterpillars are easy to spot—they look like a small blonde or gray wig and don’t move too much. But their venom is serious, and could even land you in the hospital. You’d likely encounter them on the sides of trees or within stacks of firewood.

Do you have venomous caterpillars in your backyard?

Caterpillar Alabama
The Buck Moth Caterpillar looks especially threatening. Photo via The University of Alabama, Dr. John Abbott

While there may be some minor differences in distribution, Dr. Abbott shared that truthfully, these insects are found pretty much all across the state. So, keep an eye out, especially if your pets enjoy the great outdoors.

He encourages Alabamians to “trust their gut” when it comes to safety, and reminds us of the importance of exploring Alabama’s beautiful natural landscapes. Caterpillars are (of course) not aggressive, and the harmful ones can easily be avoided.

“By far, the majority of caterpillars are not a problem and will not cause anybody any issues, so I do want to always stress that. But, like with anything if you don’t know what it is, and your ‘sixth sense’ is telling you not to mess with it, then leave it be. These caterpillars have evolved to sometimes have colorations and patterns to indicate to potential predators to stay away. So, if you get that gut reaction, then always stay away!”

Dr. John Abbott, Chief Curator & Director, Department of Museum Research & Collections Affiliated Staff, Alabama Museum of Natural History

Do venomous caterpillars turn into venomous butterflies?

Good news (for humans) is that we don’t have to worry about venomous butterflies flying around. Once these caterpillars go through their metamorphosis and turn into butterflies or moths, they are harmless to humans.

They do have some noxious chemicals that would be distasteful to birds, but we should be in the clear.

Have you spotted any of these critters this summer? Let us know @TheBamaBuzz.

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Madison Croxson
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