There are several species of caterpillars all around you. A caterpillar identification chart will help you identify and distinguish one caterpillar from the other easily. It will also tell you which caterpillar is not to be tampered with since some of them are poisonous. Read on for enlightenment…..
Did You Know?
The word ‘caterpillar’ was intended to mean ‘hairy like a cat’ or ‘(having) cat hair’. It stems from the Latin words cattus meaning cat, and pelose, meaning hairy.
Larvae of butterflies and moths are known as caterpillars. Due to the huge array of butterflies and moths, it is natural that there are several varieties of caterpillars too, making their identification difficult. Larvae of other insects such as beetles and sawflies also resemble caterpillars, but the specific term is only used to denote the larvae of butterflies and moths.
Some caterpillars are covered in poisonous hair or spines. The effects of such stings are similar to those of mild bee and wasp stings, but can also cause serious complications. A few of these caterpillars may be found on garden plants, so there is a chance that you have these poisonous caterpillars in your gardens. Therefore, it is imperative that you should be able to identify them correctly.
Some are green, yellow, red, or black; some have stripes, others have spots, some have horns, and some may even have thorns! Caterpillars are vastly different from each other – it is extremely difficult to distinguish between a butterfly larva from a moth larva. Anatomically, though, they all have strong mandibles to chew leaves, up to five pairs of pro-legs, and six simple eyes.
The main distinguishing factor between various caterpillar species is the body color pattern, presence of tapered tips (horns), and the presence of hair. Most caterpillars are colored either in shades that make them harder to spot against their host plant, such as greens and browns, or warning shades such as red, blue, orange, and yellow, that warn potential predators that the caterpillars are poisonous and unpalatable. Caterpillars that are colored distinctively or have large amounts of hair are likely to be poisonous, and should not be handled directly. The sting from some caterpillars can cause nausea, chest ache, digestive dysfunctions, and even death in people sensitive to certain substances. However, horns, if present, are not used as stingers (like in wasps or bees), and are not dangerous to humans. They in fact mimic the actual thorns on a tree, and provide camouflage to the caterpillar.
Below are the pictures and information of commonly found nonpoisonous caterpillars…..
Tobacco Hornworm (Manduca sexta)
The tobacco hornworm have one of the biggest caterpillars, almost 3-4 inches in length. They have seven white stripes on each side, and possess a harmless horn at the rear end.
They are found on plants in the Solanaceae family, including tobacco, tomato, peppers, and eggplant.
Common Mormon (Papilio polytes)
These larvae measure between 1 and 1.5 inches long. They are spiny and brown when immature, and populate citrus trees, curry leaves, or bael trees. The color brown with white patches resemble bird dropping which helps them camouflage. They secret a noxious chemicals with a foul smell to cast away predators.
Cloudless Sulfur (Phoebis sennae)
Like many caterpillars on this list, larvae of the cloudless sulfur butterfly are about 2 inches long. They populate plants such as the partridge pea, clovers, and various legumes. They can be seen in two predominant colors; green with a yellow lateral line, and yellow with black bands, blue patches are common to both. They build a tent in the host tree as a daytime resting place.
Cecropia Moth (Hylaphora cecropia)
Cecropia moth caterpillars are quite large, measuring up to 4.5 inches. They are black in the intinal stages and in the later stages the color become green and later lighter shades of green. The body has distinct dorsal protuberances covered with spikes which makes it easy to identify this caterpillar. The protuberances on the back is yellow and on the side are blue. They populate the maple, cherry, apple, alder and birch trees.
Elephant Hawk Moth (Deilephila elpenor)
Elephant hawk moths are named for the caterpillar’s superficial resemblance to the shape and color of the elephant’s trunk. They have a horn at the rear end, and they adopt a snake-like stance when threatened. They feed on willowherb and bedstraw.
False Unicorn Caterpillar (Schizura ipomoeae)
These caterpillars measure around 2 inches, and can be mistaken for dried leaves. The color resembles a dried leave with grayish brown color and light black spots. It is called a false unicorn due to its absurd body structure. They feed on morning glory (ipomoea) plants, and beech, oak, and birch trees.
Geometrid Caterpillars (Geometridae family)
Geometrid caterpillars are known for their typical ‘looping’ gait. In fact, the name of the family is derived from the gait. Geometrid caterpillars appear to measure (meter) the earth (geo) between each step, hence the name. This behavior occurs because their middle appendages are poorly developed, and they rely on legs and hind prolegs for locomotion.
Giant Peacock Moth (Saturnia pyri)
The giant peacock moth is the largest moth in Europe. It can be easily identified with its sapphire blue tubercles. It primarily dwells on fruit trees like hawthorn, alder, and birch.
Light Knotgrass Moth (Acronicta menyanthidis)
These caterpillars are found on willow and birch trees, and heather, and various berries. It can be easily identified from its dark brown color with a red lateral line bearing white spots. The entire body is covered with hair. This caterpillar should not be confused with the very similar Brown Tail Moth Caterpillar (Euproctis chrysorrhoea), whose hair can highly irritate the skin and cause temporary blindness in case of eye contact.
Hickory Horned Devil (Citheronia regalis)
These are among the largest caterpillars, measuring just short of 6 inches. In the initial stage, the larvae resemble bird droppings. The seemingly aggressive horns and spines appear on the 5th instar, and are not poisonous to humans. They are found on ash trees, walnut, hazel, cotton, and honeysuckle.
Peach Blossom Moth (Thyatira batis)
This caterpillar is easy to spot due to its bumpy yellow skin, and a characteristic resting posture of raising both its ends in the air. They feed on plants in the rose family, such as raspberries and blackberries.
Peacock Butterfly (Inachis io)
These caterpillars are about 1.5 inches long, and feed on stinging and other nettles, and the common hop. They can be easily identified with their dark black color cover with white dots and stout spikes.
Puss Moth (Cerura vinula)
The puss moth is completely unrelated to the puss caterpillar, though the adults of both species are called ‘puss’ or ‘pussy’ moths. The caterpillars of the puss moth are more than 3 inches long. They are not toxic, but they may squirt formic acid (found in ant stings) if threatened. They are found in aspen, willow, and poplar trees.
White Admiral (Limenitis arthemis)
These caterpillars are found in birch, willow, aspen, and bitter cherry trees. It can be easily identified from its two horns, it resembles a bird dropping that helps it with camouflage. It is greenish brown in color with a lateral white line and a pink saddle.
Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus)
These ingenious caterpillars construct a shelter for themselves in the host plant. They join two ends of the leaves with their silk, which contracts as it dries, pulling the two ends together. It has a pale green in color with a brown under-skin, the abdominal region has blue spots with a fine black lining. The most striking characteristic is the two big false eyes on the metathorax. It is found in spicebush, Joe-Pye weeds, jewelweeds, honeysuckles, thistles, and mimosas.
Tomato Hornworm (Manduca Quinquemaculata)
Tomato hornworms are closely related to the tobacco hornworm (Manduca sexta), and are identified by eight V-shaped markings along their bodies. Like M.sexta, tomato hornworms inhabit plants in the Solanacae family.
Luna Moth (Actias luna)
These can reach a length of about 3.5 inches. The idenfication is the light green color and bright orange spots. They are found on birch, alder, persimmon, hickory, walnut, moonflower, and tomatoes.
Poplar Hawk-moth (Laothoe populi)
These caterpillars are quite stout, and are about 2.5 inches long. They have a green horn at the rear end. They resemble a leave which is its remarkable identity. As is obvious from the name, these are found on poplar trees. They are also found in aspens, and infrequently on willows, birches, elms, and oaks.
Mullein Moth (Cuculia verbasi)
This moth is notorious as a pest. The caterpillars are about 2 inches long. They feed on mulleins and figworts. The base color is grayish white which is covered with myriad black and yellow spots.
Citrus Swallowtail (Papilio demodocus)
These larvae are about 2 inches long. The immature larvae of this species mimic bird droppings in order to escape predators, and they may appear like that to humans as well. Adults have a foul-smelling but nonpoisonous organ called osmeterium, which they may extend defensively. As the name suggests, these caterpillars are found on citrus trees. The color commonly is black or brown with a white saddle. The younger larvae have hairs which decrease as they age.
Buff-tip Moth (Phalero bucephala)
These larvae can measure up to 3 inches, but are usually smaller than 2.5 inches. They can be quicly identified due to its unique pattern of yellow and black. These live in a group on trees such as oak, willows, elm, hazel, and rose plants.
Common Evening Brown (Melanitis leda)
Caterpillars of this butterfly are about 2 inches long. It can be easily identified with its triangular face with black and white stripe and two red horn structures. Adults and larvae of this species are considered pests since they feed on crops such as rice and bamboo, and grasses such as Cynodon.
Funerary Dagger Moth (Acronicta funeralis)
Funerary dagger moth caterpillars are born brown with white markings on the body. Later they turn to darker shades with the markings turning to bright yellow. They are found in alder, apple, dogwood, maple, blueberry, elm, and oak trees.
Mildly Toxic Caterpillars
Here are some mildly poisonous caterpillars that are best to be stayed away from..
American Dagger Moth Acronicta americana
These larvae are about 2 inches long. They have dense yellow setae (short hairs covering the body) that are mildly poisonous. It is also called the hairy caterpillar. It has a black head and a lemon yellow body. The body is covered with setae and few stinging tufts that are poisonous and may cause complications depending on your skin type. It is found primarily on maple, birch, horse chestnut, hazel, walnut, and oak trees.
Buck Moth (Hemileuca maia)
These larvae are 2 to 2.5 inches long. Buck moth caterpillars are poisonous, their stings can cause not only rashes but also nausea. It has a base black color with white spots on the upper segments of the body. The respiratory segment has light brown patches, the base color though predominantly black can also be found white. They populate oak forests and pupate either on the ground or near it.
Passion Butterfly (Agraulis vanilae)
These caterpillars are about 1.5 inches long―mostly smaller than that. They have soft, nonpoisonous spines. The identification is the bright orange color and branched spikes. They are not harmful to humans, but are poisonous when eaten, and are thus protected from predators. These larvae feed exclusively on passionflowers – thus the name of the species.
Gypsy Moth (Lymantria dispar dispar)
These caterpillars range from 2-3.5 inches, and can be fairly easily identified due to the conspicuous arrangement of colored dots on their back. Starting from the head, gypsy moth caterpillars have 5 blue and 6 red spots along their body. They are found on oak, aspen, apple, willows, pine, and spruce trees.
Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa)
The larvae of this ominously named butterfly are 1-2 inches long. The identification is a dark black body with a dim orange dorsal patches and white hair with few spikes.They live in a communally spun web on willow, aspen, and birch trees.
Pine Processionary (Thaumetopoea pityocampa)
These caterpillars are named after their marching behavior of traveling in a single file – procession. They build communal nests in their host trees. They are extremely toxic, and should never be handled. They can be identified from their orange color and white hairs. They are found on pine, cedar, and larch trees.
Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor)
As the name suggests, these caterpillars feed almost exclusively on pipevines. The larva can be identified from its long tubercles and brown glossy color, the sub-dorsal tubercles are short and bright orange in color. The full-grown larva is red colored with sub-dorsal tubercles brown.
Puss Caterpillar (Megalopyge opercularis)
These seemingly appealing moths are one of the most toxic and dangerous of all caterpillars. Their spines can’t be seen at first glance due to their thick orange ‘fur’, making them even more dangerous. These reside in oak and elm trees, citruses, rose, and ivies.
Saddleback Caterpillar (Sibine stimulea)
This caterpillar gets its name due to the unusual appearance. It is basically the larva of a species of moth, and belongs to the family of slug caterpillars, Limacodidae. The name “slug caterpillar” is due to the slight resemblance to slugs. A sting from these caterpillars can be quite painful. The back of this caterpillar resembles a fancy saddle of a horse. They are found on various plants, including the Christmas palm.
Silver-spotted Tiger Moth (Lophocampa argentata)
These caterpillars are found on Douglas-fir trees. It can be easily identified by its color that resembles a tiger. The body is covered with hairs, any contact with its hair can cause skin irritation. It may also lead to further complications depending on the skin type.
Six-spot Burnet (Zygaena filipendulae)
These conspicuous caterpillars are found on clover and birdsfoot trefoil trees. The identification is easy, it is light yellow in color with black dorsal patches and white hair. It warns off predators with the bright color projecting danger. It has the ability to produce cyanide which can harm or potentially kill the predator.
Rusty Tussock Moth (Orgyia antiqua)
These caterpillars are less than 2 inches long, and are found in birch, oak, willow, and lime trees. The distinct identification is the black hairpencil. The body color resembles that of rust. The skin hair is white barring the hairpencil.
Spurge Hawk-moth (Hyles euphorbiae)
As the name suggests, these moths feed on spurges. In fact they are often used as a natural pesticide to purge out the weed. When consumed they can give some serious gastric trouble. The one thing characteristic about these caterpillars is the vivid color. They are adorn with red and yellow stripes and light colored spots all over their body. Its hard to mistake it for anything else for it is truly one of its kind.
Eastern Tent Caterpillar (Malacosoma americanum)
These caterpillars can be easily identified by their communal tent in the host plant, and their defensive behavior. Their hair may cause skin irritation. There has been an instance in Kentucky where a large number of mares suffered miscarriage, which was found to be a result of an Eastern Tent Caterpillar outbreak. They can be found on cherry and maple trees.
Sycamore Moth (Acronicta aceris)
These striking caterpillars are not poisonous. They don’t have sharp spines and can be handled, but repeated handling may lead to skin irritation. It has bright yellow hair with shades of orange and white dorsal spots. It devours on aspen, willow, and poplar.
Caterpillars are fascinating to observe, annoying when in your home, and deadly if carelessly handled. It’s best to keep it at arm’s distance, though it is certainly not necessary to kill them. Like any other creature, it is more scared of you than you are of it. Just drop it outside, and it won’t bother you any more.