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It is not uncommon for residents of the northeastern states to find caterpillars on their trees, landscaping plants and in their gardens. Caterpillars are generally dismissed as harmless, or even approachable due to their seemingly benign features and behavior. While many caterpillar species will not cause harm to humans, this is certainly not the case when it comes tussock moth-caterpillars. Tussock-moth caterpillars often become abundant in residential areas, and their white furry exterior, which resembles toothbrush bristles, can prompt curious children into picking these caterpillars up with their hands while playing in yards. Despite their appearance, the white bristle-like hairs protruding from the caterpillar’s body are actually venomous spines that become lodged in human skin upon contact. This causes extremely painful stings and potentially dangerous venom to enter the bloodstream. In addition to being a public health hazard, tussock moth-caterpillars feed on the leaves of nearly all tree and shrub species in the northeast, which can ruin an otherwise well-cultivated yard landscape.

The term “tussock moth-caterpillars” refers to moth larvae belonging to the Lymintriidae family, which literally translates to “defiler.” Several species of tussock moth-caterpillars inhabit the northeastern states, but the white marked tussock moth-caterpillar is the most commonly encountered species in the region. Past literature describes tussock moth-caterpillars as “catholic eaters,” which may originate from their habit of voraciously feeding on leaves until trees and shrubs are stripped bare of all foliage. Needless to say, this is not a good look for residential properties, and since these caterpillars are not picky about the tree and shrub species they feed on, they can potentially destroy common landscaping plants. Tussock moth-caterpillars are difficult to misidentify due to their white coat that may turn different colors in certain bodily areas at various stages during maturation. The venomous spines of these moths eventually detach and blow through the wind where they can make contact with human skin, causing irritation and possible dermatological conditions. These caterpillars successfully overwinter in cocoons that are eventually discarded. These discarded cocoons also contain venomous spines, making them a health hazard on residential properties.

Have you ever spotted a tussock moth-caterpillar specimen within your yard?