As the nation’s second largest state by area, Texas covers a wide range of ecosystems, and therefore, the state also contains a rich diversity of arthropod species. To provide examples, Texas is known for its high tarantula population in the southwest portion of the state, its high Formosan subterranean termite population in the southeastern portion of the state, and its remarkably high cockroach population in all areas of the state. However, most non-Texans are not aware that the state is also home to several venomous caterpillar species that can harm humans. In fact, the most venomous caterpillar in the United States, the puss caterpillar, resides in Texas, and they sometimes make their way into homes and buildings where they inflict painful and sometimes medically significant stings via the barbed bristles that protrude from their body, like quills on a porcupine. Numerous Texans sustain severe stings from venomous caterpillars each year, and many of these sting victims are young children.
According to one study, during a five year period in Texas, there were 54 reported cases of people sustaining a caterpillar sting. Forty seven of these cases resulted in pain and swelling at the site of the injury, but the other seven cases resulted in anaphylactic shock brought on by a severe allergic reaction. The puss caterpillar was identified as the culprit in 43 of these cases. However, these cases occurred during the 1950s before rapid urbanization brought millions of people into the state, and before other venomous caterpillars had been identified within the state. Today, the caterpillar envenomation rate in Texas is much higher than it was over half a century ago.
Back in the fall of 2014, a high school student was rushed to the emergency room after she sustained a puss caterpillar sting while riding the school bus. Earlier that same year, public health authorities publicly warned elementary school children to avoid the creatures. Just last year, a 5 year old girl was hospitalized after sustaining a puss caterpillar sting while playing in her front yard. Unfortunately, puss caterpillars are often found within or near homes, particularly patios. But the creatures die off during the cold of winter.
Have you seen a puss caterpillar in the wild?