Worms (or Caterpillars) With Red Heads and White Backs

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A reader wrote to us recently about an amazing and beautiful worm, or what is believed to be a worm, that he had found on his patio. In fact, both those adjectives were combined, making the worm, in the reader’s words, an “amazing beauty.” The worm, which is about an inch long, had a red head, white “puffs” on its back, and two large antennae. Given this worm’s aesthetic appeal, it is not surprising that the reader wanted to know what kind of worm it was.

Unfortunately, as is so often the case, we simply do not have enough information to answer this question with any degree of certainty. Indeed, we can hardly even hazard a guess, as we are lacking some crucial information about this creature. We need to know what part of the world it lives in, and we also need to know its main color. It has a red head and white puffs on its back, but what is the color(s) of its body? That said, we’ll do our best to address this reader’s question.

First, the reader almost certainly didn’t see a worm, but rather a caterpillar. This is a very common mistake; indeed, it is such a common mistake that we wrote an article about the difference between caterpillars and worms. The main reason we think that the reader found a caterpillar and a not a worm is that worms don’t have antennae, let alone large antennae, as is the case with the creature our reader found. Worms do have setae, which are essentially hair-like bristles that help some types of worms burrow, but these are quite different from antennae, and you likely wouldn’t confuse the two.

So the reader most likely encountered a caterpillar and not a worm, but what kind of caterpillar? Again, we are uncertain about this because of the missing information spelled out above, but we did find a caterpillar with the features described by our reader. It’s called the white-marked tussock moth caterpillar, and it is in fact quite beautiful. It has a red head and prominent white tufts (which might reasonably be described as “puffs,” to use our reader’s language) on its back. It also has a white stripes along its back and a large tail that has almost a goldish hue. These are common caterpillars, at least during the summer in eastern North America, where they are often seen, so if our reader happens to live in this part of the globe, we suppose there is a fairly good chance that the “worm” they saw is the white-marked tussock moth caterpillar. These caterpillars are also seen as far west as Texas, Alberta, and Colorado, so it is possible to see them in this part of the continent as well.

If our reader saw a different creature that doesn’t match the description of the white-marked tussock moth caterpillar, they should consider consulting theDiscover Life caterpillar identification guide.

Using this site, one can note the characteristics of a caterpillar they find and a list of possible matches is generated. Very cool!


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