This white fuzzy little caterpillar known as hickory tussock is the larva of a North American moth. It has recently become popular over the internet for its pretty looks along with a warning about its venomous nature. Many people, especially children, drawn to its appearance find to their dismay that the part of their skin that came into contact with it suffers allergic reactions, severe in those who are prone to allergies.
Hickory tussock caterpillar is perfectly innocent looking with tufts of white fuzzy hair and a interesting black pattern along its back. It is commonly seen between June and September feeding on the leaves of deciduous trees.
The hickory tussock caterpillar belongs to the family Arctiidae and is native in Canada from Nova Scotia to Ontario and also between the northeast and south central part of United States. Both the moths and caterpillars prefer to feed on nut-bearing trees such as hickory, pecan and walnuts, and also trees such as such as elm, oak, apple, aspen, willow, ash, and even raspberry and cornstalks. However, they do not cause any significant damage to the trees.
Though not lethal, the toxins present in the caterpillar’s hair can cause an allergic reaction in some people. These hairs are also microscopically barbed and might lead to serious problems if transferred from the hands to the eye.
The caterpillar has what are known as setae, bristle or hair like structures on its body, that are spread out in tufts. Hickory tussock has white colored setae over its body and also black colored tufts along the center of its back. These hairs are what cause allergic reaction on the skin because of the toxins they contain. Rashes similar to those caused by poison ivy or nettles can occur upon contact. The hairs also have microscopic barbs and care must be taken not to rub eyes or touch eyes after if hands are used to hold it or touch it.
The toxins present on the caterpillar’s hair are part of its chemical defense that it acquires from its host plant.
The hair of hickory tussock caterpillars is aposematic, meaning that its color is a warning that they are chemically protected. It is an alternate means to camouflage for evading the predators. Like many other species in its family, hickory tussocks caterpillars create their toxins from the plants they depend on so that the predators would think twice before feeding on them.
If you are unfortunate enough to come into contact with the caterpillar, it is recommended to wash the area thoroughly as soon as possible and apply an anti-pruritic (anti-itching) lotion such as calamine.
The allergic symptoms commonly include burning, itching, reddening and rashes. The area must be immediately washed with soap and water, and applying ammonia or calamine lotion would help. However, those with hyperactive immune system might experience much severe symptoms like nausea and swelling and it’s better to see a physician in such cases.