We recently received a very straightforward question from a reader: “I found a worm, it is furry, black, gold and white. What is it?” While direct and simple language has its virtues (think of Hemingway), it can make worm identification difficult. Regardless, we’re always interested in investigating a worm-related question, so we’ll try our best to identify this multicolored furry creature.
First, we should point out that this black, gold, and white “worm” is probably not a worm at all. Rather, it is most likely a caterpillar because it is described as “furry.” Caterpillars, and not worms, have fine hairs or bristles on them, and these tiny hairs are probably responsible for the furry appearance of the creature that our reader referenced. Since caterpillars are often confused with worms, this is an understandable mistake on the part of our reader. It is so common, in fact, that we wrote an entire article about the difference between caterpillars and worms.
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That said, what kind of caterpillar did our reader likely come across? In the absence of more information, such as the size of the caterpillar and the area of the world in which it was found, it is very hard to say. There are, after all, tons of different members of the order Lepidoptera, to which caterpillars belong. (More precisely, caterpillars are the larval form of the members in this order, which includes moths and butterflies.) At best, we can list a few candidates for what this caterpillar may be.
One of the more likely possibilities, given the abundance of the species, is that our reader came across the larval form of the Monarch butterfly, probably the most recognizable of all the butterflies of North America. The caterpillars that mature into Monarch butterflies have black, yellow, and white stripes that cover their entire bodies, including their heads. (Granted, our reader said the caterpillar was gold and not yellow, but obviously there is a fine line between these two colors.) They can reach a length of about two inches (about five centimeters), and on both ends of their bodies are a pair of black filaments, which basically look like strands of hair. Again, Monarch butterflies are very common, at least in North America, so it wouldn’t be at all unusual to see the caterpillar form of this type of butterfly.
There are any number of other caterpillars that are black, gold, and white – to pick one at random, the caterpillars that turn into Eastern Comma butterflies adhere to this color scheme – and it’s not particularly helpful, or feasible, to simply list every caterpillar that fits into this category. So, the general answer to our reader’s question is “it could be a lot of different caterpillars,” although we think the larval form of the Monarch butterfly is as good of a guess as any.
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In any case, since black and gold feature prominently in the caterpillar’s phenotype, one thing we can say confidently is that the University of Colorado should consider adopting this species as their official caterpillar.