A couple of years ago, we received a question about “long, thick, black, and spiky caterpillars with white dashes and an orange stripe.” This is more or less how the reader described the creature he found, which he called a “worm.” We were confident that our reader found a caterpillar and not a worm, but without a picture, we struggled to identify the specific species of caterpillar. Then, about a year after we wrote this article, another reader sent us a picture of a spiky caterpillar with an orange stripe that matched the above description. Both readers are from South Africa, so we were fairly sure that they were dealing with the same caterpillar, yet we still weren’t able to say exactly what species of caterpillar our reader found. At long last, however, we think we have arrived at an answer: the orange and black caterpillar with spikes is an African Emperor Caterpillar (Bunaea alcinoe), which is also called a Cabbage Tree Emperor Caterpillar.
First, let’s take a look at the caterpillar in question, which is a creature to behold:
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Although we can’t necessarily infer this based on this image alone, which lacks a scale, the caterpillar pictured is probably fairly large by larval standards. (Caterpillars are the larval forms of butterflies and moths, for the record.) African Emperor Caterpillars are generally around three inches (seven to eight centimeters) long and over a half an inch (1.5 centimeters) in diameter. Although they look fairly scary, they aren’t poisonous, but one should always exercise some caution in picking up caterpillars because they can cause skin irritation.
Like all moths and butterflies (including, of course, their larval forms), African Emperor caterpillars belong to the Lepidoptera order. Within this order is the Saturniidae family, to which the African Emperors belong. There are over 2,000 species in this family, including other species of emperor moths, as well as giant silkmoths and royal moths. The moths in the Saturniidae family tend to have relatively large wingspans. This is striking, because apart from their size, saturniids (as members of the Saturniidae family are called) tend to have vivid eyespots on their wings. The eyespots are a defense mechanism that can, among other things, deter potential predators from attacking.
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So, after nearly two years, we can finally put this question to rest. The spiky, black, and orange caterpillars found in South Africa are African Emperor Caterpillars.