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Spiny Caterpillar Identification and Guide

Updated on July 15, 2019
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The question mark butterfly has an especially spiny caterpillar
The question mark butterfly has an especially spiny caterpillar | Source

Identification of Caterpillars with Spines

The caterpillars in this guide all have one thing in common: spines. Some, like the stinging buck moth caterpillar, are covered with dense, branching spines; others, like the fearsome hickory horned devil, have only a few (but the few it does have are quite impressive).

The insects described in this guide are all the larvae of Lepidoptera species, that is, butterflies and moths. There is about an even split between moth and butterfly species; in fact, spiny species are likely to be either moth or butterfly, with no particular way of telling the difference at first glance.

All of these species can be raised to the adult if you choose, except for the gypsy moth caterpillar, which is an invasive species and is actually illegal to propagate intentionally. The buck and io moth caterpillars possess a significant sting, so if you decide to raise or handle these caterpillars, please use caution!

The io moth caterpillar is covered with venomous spines
The io moth caterpillar is covered with venomous spines | Source

Automeris io: The Io Moth

Automeris io belongs to the group of giant silk moths that also includes the cecropia and polyphemus moths, whose larvae have a few spines, but nothing like the io. This is one of the few caterpillars in our area that has stinging spines, and contact with them results in a sting not unlike a honey bee -- that is, painful, but not serious. This species is related to the buck moth, which has a more powerful sting.

This beautiful caterpillar turns into a beautiful moth. The false eye-spots on the hind wing are very realistic, and come complete with reflected-light markings, making them extra realistic.

The Basics:

  • Does it sting? YES. This species is protected with venomous spines.
  • What does it eat? Birch, willow, dogwood, ash and many more trees.
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Not usually an issue.
  • Is it rare? No, but it is not seen very often.
  • What does it turn into? The striking io giant silk moth.
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, but be very careful when handling this species!

The spiny caterpillar of the gypsy moth is a major pest of forests
The spiny caterpillar of the gypsy moth is a major pest of forests | Source

Lymantria Dispar: The Gyspy Moth

This is an introduced species that has caused real havoc in areas where it has spread. In some places it can multiply out of control and strip entire trees down to the branch. In some cases, whole forests lose their leaves to hordes of these caterpillars. If you walk into a forest that is under attack from gypsy moth caterpillars, you will hear millions of tiny jaws munching away on the leaves, and feel a steady light rain of caterpillar poops.

Attempts have been made to control this caterpillar by spraying infested forests with a kind of bacteria that kills the caterpillars, which does work, but sometimes too well -- the bacteria also attacks innocent, non-pest species. In some cases this control method proves to be worse than the actual infestation.

The Basics:

  • Does it sting? No, although the spines are sharp and stiff.
  • What does it eat? Everything, and a lot of it.
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Yes -- this is one of the most serious insect pests on the planet.
  • Is it rare? No.
  • What does it turn into? The gypsy moth.
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Raising this species is actually illegal in some areas.

The very spiny caterpillar of the regal moth is one of the largest in the world -- this is a small one!
The very spiny caterpillar of the regal moth is one of the largest in the world -- this is a small one! | Source

Citheronia Regalis: The Regal Moth

This caterpillar is perhaps the spiniest of all the species listed in this guide, which is saying something.It's known as the "hickory horned devil," and it truly earns that name -- it looks like a miniature dragon.

Aside from the sharp black spines that occur on every body segment, the hickory horned devil has several huge curved red-and-black horns on it's foremost segments. Combined with the huge size of the insect -- at over six inches, it's one of the largest caterpillars anywhere on the planet -- according to some sources, it's THE biggest caterpillar in the entire world. The hickory horned devil is likely the largest, and certainly the fiercest-looking, caterpillar in North America. Full-grown, they are nearly half a foot long, and will rear up and make a clicking sound if you bother them.

Amazingly, hickory horned devils are totally harmless -- all those fierce horns and spines are only for show.

The hickory horned devil turns into the regal moth, a gigantic, beautiful insect that most people will never see in nature.

The Basics:

  • Does it sting? No, even though it looks really fierce.
  • What does it eat? Walnut, oak, persimmon, and hickory.
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Not usually.
  • Is it rare? Common the American South
  • What does it turn into? A huge, beautiful moth -- in terms of mass, it's the biggest in North America.
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, although it pupates in soil (no cocoon).

The mourning cloak butterfly has a spiny caterpillar that eats elms and other plants
The mourning cloak butterfly has a spiny caterpillar that eats elms and other plants | Source

Nymphalis Antiopa: The Mourning Cloak Butterfly

This caterpillar eats elm leaves and is known in some places as "the spiny elm caterpillar." It is the larval stage of one of the best-known butterflies in the world, the mourning cloak. This beautiful insect is native to the US and Europe. In the UK, this species is incredibly rare, and entomologists can spend a lifetime waiting for one to show up (it's known as "the Camberwell Beauty" in England). Up close, the upper side of the mourning cloak is gorgeous. The underside is considerably more drab; the dark colors give the insect its common name because early entomologists thought it looked like the drab cloaks worn by mourners at funerals.

Mourning cloaks often winter in a shelter and begin flying on the first warm days of spring. Keep an eye out for these big, beautiful butterflies on warm spring days, even when there are still patches of snow on the ground.

The Basics:

  • Does it sting? No, although the spines are sharp.
  • What does it eat? Elm leaves.
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Not usually.
  • Is it rare? Not in North America, but in England it is very rare.
  • What does it turn into? A gorgeous burgundy and yellow butterfly
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, if you give it plenty of fresh leaves.

The saddleback caterpillar has stinging spines
The saddleback caterpillar has stinging spines | Source

Acharia Stimulea: The Saddleback Caterpillar

This species belongs to the family Limacodidae, a group of moths that are better known as caterpillars. They move with suction-cup feet and sort of glide along, and are therefore commonly known as "slug caterpillars." Nearly all of them can sting, even though their spines and hairs are not always noticeable. The stinging rose caterpillar is one of them, as is the spine oak slug. There are many othersm some of which have truly bizarre appearances.

For true spines, though, the saddleback caterpillar has them all beat. It has obvious spines, protruding from four fleshy tubercles. These spines bear a kind of venom that causes welts, pain and itching when touched. Stay away from the spines, and you'll be safe -- like all caterpillars, saddlebacks move slowly and cannot fling or launch their spines, or themselves, at you or anything else.

The moth of this interesting species is a pretty chocolate brown, with tan and green markings. It is very seldom seen.

The Basics:

Scientific name: Acharia stimulea

Food Plant: a very wide variety of plants, including maple, dogwood, pecan, and crepe myrtle

Range: Southeastern US

Adult Moth: The adult is small and stout with dark-brown wings

Severity of Sting: This caterpillar has a sharp, painful sting, similar to a honeybee

The spiny caterpillar of the giant leapord moth shows bright crimson bands when it rolls up
The spiny caterpillar of the giant leapord moth shows bright crimson bands when it rolls up | Source

Hypercompe scribonia: The Giant Leopard Moth Caterpillar

This caterpillar is likely the spiniest in this guide. It is covered in sharp, stiff spines that have the feel of sharp needles -- they are not venomous, but the effect of so many truly sharp, stiff spines makes handling a giant leopard moth caterpillar somewhat hazardous. When it rolls into a ball, it shows bright crimson bands between its body segments.

This large caterpillar can sometimes be found curled up under stones or logs, where it overwinters. The adult moth is one of the most beautiful insects in North America,

The Basics:

Scientific name: Hypercompe scribonia

Food Plant: Many low plants, including plantain

Range: Ranges across the US and into Canada; similar species south into Mexico

Adult Moth: The adult moths are large, beautiful insects

Severity of Sting: Does not sting, but the spines are surprisingly stiff and sharp

The spiny caterpillar of the buck moth has a venomous sting
The spiny caterpillar of the buck moth has a venomous sting | Source

Genus Hemileuca: Buck Moths

There are several closely related moths in the genus Hemileuca, and the larvae of all of them can sting. On occasion, they will undergo a population explosion; at these times, they will be found crawling around on the ground, and also gather in large mats of several dozen individuals on tree trunks. This provides the species with increased protection from predators, since an encounter with a large number of this stinging caterpillar is a truly intimidating event.

Buck moths are related to the io moth, which also has a number of less-well-known species and sub-species. In general, it's best to be cautious around caterpillars with bright colors and multiple sets of rosette spines.

The Basics:

Scientific name: Hemileuca species

Food Plant: Mostly oaks

Range: Several species, ranging across the US and into Canada and Mexico

Adult Moth: The adult moths are large, beautiful insects

Severity of Sting: Can be very painful, especially if you come into contact with a group of the caterpillars.

The painted lady caterpillar makes a nest in nettles
The painted lady caterpillar makes a nest in nettles | Source

Vanessa Cardui: The Painted Lady Butterfly

If you buy a commercially available butterfly raising kit, this is the species you will most likely get. One reason for this is that the species is distributed world-wide, and so releasing them into nature once they have hatched out is not an issue. Another reason is that they do very well in captivity, and will thrive eating the mixture that is provided with the kit.

In the wild, painted lady butterflies occur in almost all parts of the world. They are thought to mimic monarchs, and they show the red and black warning colors that are thought to signal "danger" to predators like birds and lizards.

The spiny caterpillar of Vanessa cardui is totally harmless. It has no venom or other chemical protection that would affect humans.

The Basics:

Scientific name: Vanessa cardui

Food Plant: Thistle and hollyhock

Range: Essentially world-wide

Adult: The adult butterlies are large, beautiful insects

Can You Raise it to the Adult: Yes, this species is very easy to raise

The red admiral caterpillar showing its spines
The red admiral caterpillar showing its spines | Source

Vanessa Atalanta: The Red Admiral

This very common species is one of the most often-seen butterflies in urban areas. Ir has a quick and nervous flight, but it lands frequently; males will often patrol areas around porches and yards in the late afternoon, returning to the same perch after each tour of its territory. This butterfly is also well-known for its habit of landing on people, which it evidently regards as a suitable perch.

The caterpillar of this charming butterfly feed in groups on nettles. You will sometimes find their nest in the summer, with many individuals, and a whole lot of poop as well. They likely gain some protection by making this stinging plant their home.

Red admiral caterpillars are dark, with jagged yellow markings on the side. Their black spines cover most of the body, making it even more difficult for a predator to get anything more than a mouthful of prickles should they decide to attack.

The Basics:

  • Does it sting? No, although the spines are sharp.
  • What does it eat? Nettles
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Not usually.
  • Is it rare? No -- this species is among the most common of North American butterflies.
  • What does it turn into? A pretty red and black butterfly
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, if you give it plenty of fresh leaves.

The spiny caterpillar of Edith's checkerspot is typical of the Nymphalidae family
The spiny caterpillar of Edith's checkerspot is typical of the Nymphalidae family | Source

Fritillary Caterpillars: Genus Speyeria and Others

Taken as a group, these caterpillars are uniformly spiny. There are many different kinds that fall under the umbrella of "fritillary," and even more if you include the checkerspots and crescents. These butterflies are generally orange with black spots and chevrons; some have silvered spots on the underside, and are among the most beautiful insects in North America.

The great spangled fritillary, Speyeria cybele, is representative of the group. It flies throughout the Eastern United States in open spaces. The spiny caterpillar, which is dark colored with many yellow-orange spines, feeds on violets and other low plants. It's unusual to find this caterpillar, but in my experience the species is far from rare.

The Basics:

  • Does it sting? No, although the spines are sharp.
  • What does it eat? Violets and other plants
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Not usually.
  • Is it rare? No
  • What does it turn into? A pretty orange and black butterfly with silvered spots on the underside
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, if you give it plenty of fresh leaves.

The smeared dagger moth has a very spiny caterpillar
The smeared dagger moth has a very spiny caterpillar | Source

Acronicta Oblinita: The Smeared Dagger Moth

The adult moth of this species, like all dagger moths, is gray with black spots and chevrons, including a vaguely dagger-shaped mark at the lower corner of the upper wing; this is where the group gets its common name.

The spiny caterpillar of the smeared dagger moth feeds on many plants, and is among the more common moth caterpillars in the eastern US. It has a very characteristic jagged yellow line down its side, which makes it look quite similar to another spiny caterpillar in this guide, the red admiral butterfly.

This species is common enough that it can sometimes be considered a pest in the fruit industry, due to the spiny caterpillar's ability to strip small trees of leaves if there are enough of them.

The Basics:

  • Does it sting? No, although the spines are sharp.
  • What does it eat? Many plants and trees
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Yes, occasionally
  • Is it rare? No
  • What does it turn into? A drab gray moth
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, if you give it plenty of fresh leaves.

The beautiful spiny caterpillar of the gulf fritillary
The beautiful spiny caterpillar of the gulf fritillary

Agraulis Vanillae: The Gulf Fritillary

The gulf fritillary is a simply gorgeous butterfly, one of the most striking insects in North America. It has the orange and black upperside of most fritillary species, but underneath it is shaded with crimson, rich coffee-brown, and brightly metallic silver spots. Interestingly, it is not a true fritillary; it's a member of a tropical group of butterflies sometimes called longwings or Heliconiids. There are no other members of this group that resemble the gulf fritillary, and the group is well known for its mimicry of other species, so it's likely that the gulf fritillary is "copying" the colors of the true fritillaries in order to gain some protection from predators. Of course, it could also be the other way around, and idea supported by the fact that Heliconiid caterpillars feed on vines -- in this case, Passiflora vines -- that are known to have toxic sap.

Whatever the case, the spiny caterpillar of the gulf fritillary is sometimes found on passion flower vines, especially in Florida and Texas. It is a southern species, but is sometimes found as far north as the Great Lakes.

The Basics:

  • Does it sting? No, although the spines are sharp.
  • What does it eat? Passion flower vines
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Yes, it can occasionally remove the leaves from the host plant
  • Is it rare? Not in the South, but in the North it is seldom seen
  • What does it turn into? A gorgeous butterfly
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, if you give it plenty of fresh leaves.

The caterpillar of the variegated fritillary is covered in spines
The caterpillar of the variegated fritillary is covered in spines | Source

Euptoieta Claudia: The Variegated Fritillary

Like the gulf fritillary, the variegated fritillary is not a true fritillary, despite superficially resembling members of that group.This butterfly is something like a paler version of the gulf fritillary, with a "smeared" look to the underside, and no metallic silver markings. While it is related to the true fritillaries, the variegated fritillary exhibits some distinc differences:

  • Variegated fritillaries have two or three broods per year vs. one per year in Speyeria
  • They are nomadic vs. sedentary
  • They use a wide range of host plants vs. just violets.
  • Variegated fritillaries also have taxonomic links to the heliconians.
  • Their flight is low and swift, rather than high and gliding

Another characteristic of this species is the fact that they are very hard to approach; accordingly, its genus name was taken from the Greek word euptoietos, meaning "easily scared".

The beautiful spiny caterpillar becomes an even more beautiful pupa, marked with cream, orange, and metallic silver spines. The caterpillar's food plants include moonseed, flax, passionflower, plantain, pansy, and violets.

The Basics:

  • Does it sting? No, although the spines are sharp.
  • What does it eat? Many plants (see above)
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Not usually.
  • Is it rare? No, although it is more common in the South
  • What does it turn into? A pretty orange and black butterfly
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, if you give it plenty of fresh leaves.


The caterpillar of the question mark butterfly
The caterpillar of the question mark butterfly | Source

Polygonia Interrogationis: The Question Mark

This species vaguely resembles the fritillaries, but is in a completely separate group, the angle-wings. You can tell if a butterfly is an angle wing when they land -- they have very irregular wing margins, and the underside is designed to resemble a dead leaf. This is very effective camouflage, and combined with the orange upperside, gives the butterfly the ability to seemingly "disappear" when it lands, confusing any hungry birds attempting to follow it. The common name is due to a small metallic silver mark on the underside, which is in the shape of a perfect little question mark.

The very spiny caterpillar of the question mark butterfly is representative of the group. They are all covered with branching spines, which may keep parasitic wasps and flies from being able to land and lay their eggs. The caterpillar eats various kinds of elm, and can often be found in mid-summer on the lower branches of elm trees and saplings, as well as hackberry, nettles, and several other plants.

The Basics:

  • Does it sting? No, although the spines are sharp.
  • What does it eat? Elm, hackberry, and nettles
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Not usually.
  • Is it rare? No, this species is quite common
  • What does it turn into? A very cool orange butterfly
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, if you give it plenty of fresh leaves.

Resources

The following sources were used for this guide:

https://en.wikipedia.org

https://www.butterfliesandmoths.org

https://bugguide.net

http://www.butterflyidentification.com/question-mark.htm

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