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article imageVenomous Puss caterpillars are popping up in Virginia

By Karen Graham     Oct 13, 2020 in Science
In news only 2020 could bring, Virginia forestry officials are warning residents to #SocialDistance far away from venomous puss caterpillars, which have been spotted in the state’s eastern counties.
In a post last week on its Facebook page, the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDF) warned that puss caterpillars had been spotted in several counties in the eastern part of the state. “The ‘hairs’ of this caterpillar are actually venomous spines that cause a painful reaction if touched,” the agency warned. “#SocialDistance away from this caterpillar!”
The VDF went on to explain: "The caterpillars eat oak and elm leaves, but they can be found in parks or near structures. If you find the caterpillar, leave it alone and let its natural enemies control their populations— there are a number of other insects that will prey on them at different stages of their life cycle."
The puss caterpillar is the larval stage of the southern flannel moth, Megalopyge opercularis. It is found on oaks, elms, citrus and a number of other trees, as well as on many garden plants such as roses and ivy. It can be found as far north as New Jersey, and on down into Mexico and even Central America.
Southern flannel moth  Megalopyge opercularis  male. Location: Durham County  North Carolina  United...
Southern flannel moth, Megalopyge opercularis, male. Location: Durham County, North Carolina, United States. Photo taken: July 14, 2004
Patrick Coin (CC BY-SA 2.5)
The inch-long larval stage is covered in long, luxuriant hair-like setae, or spines, making it resemble a tiny Persian cat, the characteristic that presumably gave it the name "puss." And like Persian cats, the puss caterpillar's wig-like hairs come in a variety of shades.
Along with early summer, fall is the time of year when they’re most active, according to the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UFIFAS).
While the puss caterpillar may look like a moving hairpiece meant for a Barbie Doll, those wig-like hairs are actually venomous spines that can cause intense pain, swelling, vomiting, and fever if touched. They are famous for causing medical emergencies, according to Prevention.
#SocialDistance away from this caterpillar!
#SocialDistance away from this caterpillar!
VDF
Crystal Spindel Gaston, who lives in New Kent County, between Richmond and Williamsburg, brushed against a puss caterpillar while reaching into the rear door of her car last month. She immediately felt “white-hot pain," according to NBC12.com.
Looking down, she expected to see a piece of metal or wire sticking out from the car. “That’s when my brain really flipped out,” Gaston said, “because I just didn’t know what I was looking at. I knew it was probably an animal or a hive or a cocoon or something, but it was no shape of any animal I had ever seen. It was a cross between like a mouse and a slug.”
In 2018, a 15-year-old Florida girl was rushed to the hospital after coming into contact with a puss caterpillar. Another Florida woman was sent to the hospital after one touched her wrist in 2019: “I’ve had two C-sections, other surgeries, and nothing came close to the pain,” she wrote on Facebook. “It felt like someone was drilling into my bones.”
More about puss caterpillar, Southern flannel moth, venomous spines, immediate pain, practice social distancing
 
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