One of our readers was taking a walk in Southern Colorado when she came across a caterpillar that was black with sticky needles coming off of its entire body. She wanted to know what it is and if it is dangerous.
This caterpillar that our reader found is the Giant Leopard Moth caterpillar. It is in the Hypercompe scribonia family. It is usually found in many parts of North America, but mainly in parts of Canada, Southern Florida, the Western areas like Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado, and in parts of Minnesota. The beginning phases of the Giant Leopard caterpillar happen in the early spring and they reach their caterpillar adulthood in the fall and sometimes winter. These caterpillars will eventually stop eating when it gets close to winter and find a warm place to hibernate.
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In the young phases of the caterpillars lives, they are orange and black with tiny spikes all over their bodies. Full grown caterpillars are also known as giant wooly bears; grow to be about 3 inches in length. They are black and brown in color with larger spikes and some have hints of red in their bristles.
Giant Leopard caterpillars feed on plants with larger leaves such as violets, honeysuckles, lilacs, magnolias, plantains, and dandelions. They live mostly in gardens, forests, and farms.
The bristles on the bodies of these caterpillars keep predators away and they have the ability to roll into a ball if they are frightened. Once they sense a predator, there is a liquid that is produced in their thorax. It emits a heavy and foul smell that scares off any predators that may be trying to eat them.
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These caterpillars may look scary, but they are not dangerous at all. They are not poisonous and although they look scary to touch, children have been known to keep these caterpillars as pets until they turn into adult moths.
Giant Leopard moths are white with black spots when they reach full adulthood. They have been known to help out farmers by eating invasive plants in gardens and yards.
In summary, our reader has found the Giant Leopard moth caterpillar. They do have tiny bristles located all over their bodies that may look deadly, but they are not. These caterpillars use these bristles as a defense mechanism.