While out hiking at Charleston Lake, I spotted this fuzzy, bristly caterpillar. When I got home, I looked it up in my Caterpillars of Eastern North America guide, by David L. Wagner. It’s the caterpillar of the Milkweed Tussock Moth (Euchaetes egle). As the name suggests, milkweed it the preferred food plant for these caterpillars.
The Tussock moth label is a misnomer, as these moths are classified with tiger moths. Another tiger moth caterpillar that you are probably familiar with is the Woolly Bear. For more on Woolly Bears, follow this link. A less well known relative, also common at this time of the year is the Hickory Tussock, linked here.
Some people have an allergic reaction, developing a rash, after handling these caterpillars, so it is not a good idea to pick them up, no matter how cute and fuzzy them may look.
Female moths lay large batches of eggs, and while the caterpillars are tiny, they live together on one plant before dispersing. Monarch butterflies are well know to also use milkweed as their larval food source, but Wagner notes that Monarchs tend to prefer young shoots, while Tussocks are content to eat older foliage.
The caterpillar will overwinter in a cocoon and emerge as a moth next year. Here’s the adult moth, below. Thanks to daughter Seabrooke for providing this photo. You will find the Milkweed Tussock Moth and a host of others in Seabrooke’s Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America. Learn more at her website, The Marvelous in Nature, linked here.