By Sara Muharremi, Staff Writer
As if our year hasn’t been crazy enough so far, in Eastern Virginia there have been sightings of unique hairy-looking caterpillars that are quite dangerous. For these caterpillars to appear in eastern Virginia is a little unusual as they normally appear in southern states such as Missouri and Texas. These caterpillars are called Megalopyge opercularis, but they are more commonly known as ‘toupee caterpillars,’ ‘puss caterpillars,’ or even as ‘southern flannel moths.’
The best way to describe how these caterpillars look is as if someone dropped a toupee on top of a caterpillar. If one of these caterpillars stood upright, they’d look like Cousin Itt from “The Addams Family”. The only difference between the two is that these caterpillars are not to be messed with; they are some of the most venomous caterpillars in America.
Although they look soft and fluffy, these caterpillars should not be petted — if you touch their hair, it will release toxins that interact with your skin resulting in a reaction similar to a rash. Hiding underneath their hair are toxic hollow spines that can easily stick in your skin. If one of these caterpillars were to sting you, using duct tape or any kind of sticky tape to remove the spines that may be stuck in your skin is crucial, then you should apply ice onto the area to minimize any kind of swelling and inflammation. After, follow it up with a trip over to a medical professional just to assure that all the hairs are removed from your skin and nothing else goes awry. Once you’re stung, the pain is said to be excruciating. Some have described the pain to be a sharp stinging that could be felt throughout their body. You can also develop a fever, swollen glands or even muscle cramps.
These caterpillars can typically be found in forests or parks; some people have even been stung because a caterpillar has fallen out of a tree. Although the likelihood that someone runs into one of these is rare, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with any potentially harmful creatures before going hiking just in case.
According to Mr. Eric Day from Virginia Tech’s Insect Identification Lab, these caterpillars have slightly grown in number but there is by no means an ‘outbreak.’ The reason for the higher number in the caterpillars could be because “[p]uss caterpillars may have had the opportunity to feed and grow because predators that customarily keep them in check, such as birds and wasps, may not be abundant. […] [and] that warmer summers and winters help the caterpillars.”
This is just another reason why we should be taking a good and hard look at how we’re affecting our planet. The ecosystem is complex and intricate, and when one organism is brought out of bounds, it can affect everything else in the chain. The rise of the stinging toupee caterpillars is just one small example of that.