If you live in Florida, get ready to look but don’t touch! The “puss caterpillar,” named as such for its cat-like furry coat, is making its seasonal return to the sunshine state, and it is not as friendly as it looks.
National Geographic reported on the miniature master of deception back in 2014, calling it the “Toxic ‘Toupee,” the most venomous caterpillar in the United States whose sting “can cause more pain than a bee sting.” Since then, stories of sightings (and even stings) have flooded in from Florida residents. “The pain immediately and rapidly gets worse after being stung,” explained Don Hall, an entomologist at the University of Florida. “[It] can even make your bones hurt.”
They certainly look soft and are sure to rouse the curiosity of nature-loving kids, so be wary; the caterpillar’s fuzzy-looking fur in fact conceals a handful of small, sharp spines that will stick the skin and release venom. “It’s definitely incapacitating,” agreed Michael Dusk, a Spring Hill resident who reported his sting to Fox 13. “It feels extremely painful!”
This little critter is nicknamed “the fire caterpillar” in Costa Rica for very good reason. But they are not indestructible; their populations waver and are continually at the mercy of the weather, food availability, and invasive parasites.
Dr. Alfred Aleguas, the director of the Florida Poison Control Center in Tampa Bay, reiterated the sensible “look, don’t touch” philosophy of most news channels. Bites from puss caterpillars are painful, he asserted, but for the most part a visit to the emergency room is not necessary. “If you call us right away, we can tell you things to do to relieve a lot of the pain,” Dr. Aleguas shared. Entomologist Dr. Nancy Hinkle from the University of Georgia even demonstrated a nifty trick on USA Today using scotch tape to lift the caterpillar’s spines out of human skin after a sting. It’s a necessary step in order to heal.
The next step is to apply an ice pack to reduce stinging, then cover the affected area with a healing, homemade paste comprising baking soda and water. Anybody overly curious or unlucky enough to be stung should take extra care, however, if they have a history of hay fever, asthma, or an allergic response. They should “contact a physician immediately,” Dr. Aleguas advises.
National Geographic reported that, alarmingly, “some have petted the insect, [while] others have been injured when the caterpillars fell onto them from trees.”
Puss caterpillars enjoy their Floridian vacations in the spring and again in the fall, spending the winter months cozy in their cocoons as they prepare for the next season of moderately duplicitous behavior. They can mostly be found lounging at medium altitudes on the branches of oak and citrus trees, but occasionally (as video evidence suggests) they venture down to the leafy valleys of park benches to terrorize the locals.
If you spot one, and you may, by all means take some photos, but be sure to keep your distance!