• Virginia authorities received several reports on sightings of a venomous caterpillar
  • The caterpillars look friendly but they are actually some of the most venomous in the U.S.
  • People are being advised to stay away from the caterpillars and leave them alone if spotted

People in the state of Virginia are being advised to stay away from a certain type of caterpillar that has been spotted in the state. Although the caterpillar looks quite friendly, it's actually one of the most venomous caterpillars in the U.S.

On Tuesday, the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) urged people to "#Social Distance" from a hairy caterpillar after the agency received reports of sightings in several eastern counties.

"The caterpillars eat oak and elm leaves, but they can be found in parks or near structures," the VDOF said in a statement on Facebook, sharing a photo of the dark, fluffy caterpillar that looks rather like a wig.

#SocialDistance away from this caterpillar! VDOF’s forest health team has received reports of the puss caterpillar in... Posted by Virginia Department of Forestry on Tuesday, 6 October

Called the puss caterpillar (Megalopyge opercularis), it is the larva of the southern flannel moth and its fluffy and hairy appearance makes it look rather attractive. But people are advised to not touch these caterpillars because they actually have hollow spines hidden among the hairs, each of which has a venom gland at the base.

Although the toxicity of the caterpillars' venom increases along with size, the University of Florida explained that all larval instars or developmental stages may sting. Their hair also tends to grow each time that they molt.

Those who come in contact with the sting of a puss caterpillar may experience "immediate, intense pain," swelling, an itchy rash, anxiety, restlessness, nausea, fever, muscle cramps, vomiting, swelling, or symptoms of shock, the University of Michigan said.

Typically, these caterpillars can be found in southern states including Florida, Texas, and Missouri. Occasionally, puss caterpillar outbreaks can be large enough to defoliate trees. There were also several incidents reported in Texas wherein schools had to close down because of the caterpillars' presence, the University of Florida noted.

What's concerning is that the species is not typically observed in Virginia, but the VDOF said that its population can still be controlled by the species' "natural enemies."

"If you find the caterpillar, leave it alone and let its natural enemies control their populations — there are a number of other insects that will prey on them at different stages of their life cycle," the VDOF said in the statement.

These "natural enemies" include lizards that eat the larva and chrysopa lacewings that feed on the eggs.

Anyone who comes in contact with a puss caterpillar should remove any remaining hair and spines from the affected area. An ice pack as well as creams with steroids may also help reduce the swelling.

megalopyge opercularis is a friendly-looking yet venomous caterpillar commonly known as the asp
megalopyge opercularis is a friendly-looking yet venomous caterpillar commonly known as the asp Brett Hondow - Pixabay