Wig-Wanting Toxic Caterpillars Can Inflict Ache, Officers Warn

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Wig-Looking Poisonous Caterpillars Can Inflict Pain, Officials Warn

First, it was murder hornets. Now caterpillars sting.

As if there wasn't enough cause for concern in 2020, Virginia forest rangers are warning not to touch a caterpillar that looks like a wig on a tree.

The Virginia Department of Forestry said it had received reports of hairy-looking tomcat caterpillars in eastern Virginia. The hair is attached to a toxic gland, said Eric Day of Virginia Tech's Insect Identification Lab.

Touching could cause a painful reaction, the severity of which can vary, Mr. Day said. Other symptoms may include pain in waves, rash, fever, muscle spasms, or swollen glands, according to the University of Michigan.

Symptoms should be monitored and people who are stung should make their own judgment about seeking medical help, Mr Day said.

He recommended taking a picture of the caterpillar and seeing a doctor if symptoms worsen.

For people with severe reactions, "you would think it was a much larger animal," said Mr. Day.

It is also known as the southern flannel moth, but the moth stage of this caterpillar is nothing to worry about, Mr. Day said.

"The larva of this species is completely covered by a thick carpet of long gray-brown to dark brown hair with a rusty streak down the center of the back," and overall resembles a tiny mouse, Virginia Tech said in an information sheet about the caterpillar.

These caterpillars, which eat oak and elm leaves, are usually found in parks or near structures, according to foresters. It is one of several stinging caterpillars in the country.

The warning from the Virginia forest rangers comes a few months after Asian giant hornets, known as murder hornets, reappeared in the Pacific Northwest. Although this hornet calls for bee carcasses, its powerful sting has been linked to up to 50 deaths per year in Japan.

In September, a woman in New Kent County, Virginia said she felt a pain in her right leg from a hangover after reaching into her car, The Daily Progress reported. She went to an emergency room and it took three days before she felt normal again.

"It felt just like a scorching hot knife going through the outside of my calf," said Mrs. Crystal Spindel Gaston. "Before I looked down to see where it was coming from, I 100 percent thought I was seeing a large piece of metal, super sharp, sticking out of my car."

It's normal for Mr. Day to receive reports of a few tomcat caterpillars a year, but he has already received about 20 inquiries – ten times what he normally receives. He said it was too early to tell if the numbers were affected by climate change, but added that warmer summers and winters are helping the caterpillars.

"Outbreak is a big word, but the numbers are much higher," said Mr Day. "And definitely the number of reports is much higher."

Male caterpillars may have had an opportunity to feed and grow, as the predators that commonly keep them in check, such as birds and wasps, may not be common.

"There are a lot of things that caterpillars love, even stinging caterpillars," he said.

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