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Hickory Horned Devil Caterpillars: Even Chickens Are Afraid of Them
Nothing to Fear
Wow! These guys have really got their bluff in on everyone, including chickens that normally eat caterpillars! They are huge and look like they could swallow a mouse for lunch, but although their looks scream "get away...run," they are just some big, old harmless babies that wouldn't hurt a flea. They are usually about 5-6 inches long, so you can see why a chicken might be a little nervous tackling one of them.
This big, ugly sucker is a Hickory Horned Devil caterpillar, and he will eventually turn into a large, colorful Regal (or Royal Walnut) moth - scientific name Citheronia regalis.
Even those long, red horns with black tips don't sting, although they do look pretty scary. It's all a ruse, and these bright green caterpillars are actually pretty easy to handle, so when you see one, go ahead and pick him up...you'll be just fine.
They Burrow Instead of Spin
The Hickory Horned Devil caterpillar differs from most other caterpillars that spin a cocoon; instead, they actually burrow down into the ground to transform into an adult moth. In fact, you are unlikely to see one of these caterpillars until he climbs down out of a tree looking for a site for pupation. If you do happen to see one of them on pavement and in an area where burrowing would be difficult, go ahead and be neighborly and pick it up and move it to an area where the soil is soft enough for burrowing.
Unless you live on the eastern side of the United States, you are likely to never run across one of these caterpillars, as they are found in the deciduous forest areas of the eastern United States (New Jersey to Missouri) and southward (to east Texas and central Florida).
Did We Say They Are Large?
Hickory Horned Devils Love Shade Trees
Even though a Hickory Horned Devil caterpillar will eat the leaves of shade trees, usually the damage is minimal because their numbers are small. Some of the trees they like to hang out in include hickory, ash, persimmon, sweetgum, sycamore and walnut.
When Regal moths emerge from the soil during the summer, they mate and a female moth will spend most of her remaining life laying eggs, depositing them on leaves in clusters. It takes the eggs about 15-16 days to hatch, starting the four larval stages - embryo, larva, pupa and imago. In the final stages, these caterpillars have voracious appetites.
If you disturb a Hickory Horned Devil caterpillar, it will throw its body from side to side trying to scare you away, but it is all an act and they really are harmless. In late summer to early fall, the caterpillar will burrow into the soil to pupate and overwinter. Most will remain as pupae for a little less than a year, although others take almost two years to turn into moths.
Populations of these caterpillars appear to be declining and they are generally not considered a pest. They can survive a very moderate frost and will continue to feed as it gets warmer, but because there are so few of them, no pest control is recommended.
In case you wondered about the taxonomic rank of the Hickory Horned Devil caterpillar:
- Kingdom: Animalia
- Phylum: Arthropoda
- Subphylum: Atelocerata
- Class: Hexapoda (including Insecta)
- Infraclass: Neoptera
- Subclass: Pterygota
- Order: Lepidoptera
- Superfamily: Bombycoidea
- Family: Saturniidae
- Subfamily: Ceratocampinae
- Genus: Citheronia
- Subject: Citheronia regalis (Fabricius)
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