Discovering caterpillars crawling through your garden or yard prompts curiosity about what butterfly or moth they will become. Black fuzzy caterpillars with red spots particularly stand out. But several species match this description, making identification important. This guide covers distinguishing features, habitats, and risks associated with this eye-catching caterpillar.

What is a Caterpillar?

Let’s first review some key characteristics of all caterpillars:

  • Caterpillars are the larval form of butterflies and moths (order Lepidoptera).
  • During this juvenile stage, all nutrients are focused on feeding and growth.
  • Caterpillars molt multiple times as they increase size.
  • Specialized mouthparts allow caterpillars to consume leaves, stems, and fruits.
  • Most species have distinct coloration and patterns signaling the future adult form.
  • Defensive adaptations include irritating hairs, venom, mimicry, and camouflage.
  • Caterpillars eventually form a pupa where transformation to the winged adult occurs.

Recognizing shared caterpillar traits helps distinguish fuzzy black and red species.

Buck Moth Caterpillar

One prime suspect is the striking buck moth caterpillar:

  • Scientific name Hemileuca maia features vivid black bands with red-orange dots along its body.
  • Covered in dense protective barbed hairs that cause skin irritation upon contact.
  • Grows up to 2 inches long when feeding on oaks, willows, and other trees.
  • Primarily located across Western North America but ranges into Texas at times.
  • Adults are yellow-white wooly moths emerging mid summer after pupation.

Use caution around buck moth caterpillars to avoid unpleasant reactions from their detachable quills.

Io Moth Caterpillar

The io moth caterpillar also sports attention-grabbing spiky coloration:

  • Also called the sheep moth, scientific name Automeris io.
  • Black overall with dramatic red-tipped branching spines covering its body.
  • Inhabits hardwood trees like elm, maple, and ash across North America.
  • Grows over 3 inches long feeding voraciously before pupating.
  • The adult io moth has yellow and reddish-purple wings.
  • Stinging hairs that irritate skin upon contact.

Io caterpillars match the striking black and red fuzzy description but require gentle handling.

Hickory Tussock Moth Caterpillar

This next species presents a similar fuzzy black and red appearance:

  • Lophocampa caryae, commonly called the hickory tussock moth caterpillar.
  • Black with white hairs on the sides and dense red hair tufts sprouting from the sides and both ends.
  • Red hair tufts are mildly venomous and cause rashes.
  • Feeds on a variety of trees including pecan, hickory, and walnut.
  • Found throughout North America.
  • Hickory tussock moth adults are pale yellow with gray banded wings.

Use care and avoid contact with irritating hairs if discovering this caterpillar.

Banded Woolly Bear Caterpillar

One well-known black and red species is the woolly bear caterpillar:

  • The iconic banded woolly bear has a primarily black midsection with reddish-brown on either end.
  • Despite fuzzy appearance, hair tends to be fairly soft and non-irritating to skin.
  • Prefers herbs and grasses rather than trees. Common across lawns.
  • Minimizes contact when disturbed by rolling into a ball.
  • Adults are the Isabella tiger moth with yellow-orange wings and dark spots.

This familiar species can be safely handled gently despite its stark contrasting colors.

Red-humped Caterpillar

While more brightly colored than black, this next caterpillar sometimes has dark phases:

  • Schizura concinna, known as the red-humped or black-humped prominent caterpillar.
  • Variable coloration features bright yellow and green with red or maroon humps along the back.
  • Covered in stinging hairs that cause painful rashes.
  • Feeds on broadleaf trees like cherry, elm, and cottonwood across North America.
  • Adult moths are pale tan with hook-like wings.

Red-humped caterpillars in darker color forms may resemble black and red fuzzy species despite different habits.

Identifying Caterpillar Features

Noticing key characteristics beyond color helps identify unknown caterpillars:

  • Distinctive barbs, spines, hairs – and whether they detach upon contact.
  • Head shape and presence of patterns or stripes.
  • Proleg count can indicate species.
  • Size upon reaching full maturity.
  • Host plants and preferred habitat.
  • Movement such as inchworm looping or wriggling.
  • Behavior when disturbed, such as rolling into a ball.

Combining multiple traits provides more definitive species identification.

Caterpillar Safety Tips

  • Avoid touching unknown caterpillars until identifying any risks from venomous hairs or stingers.
  • Use gloves and tools to handle caterpillars if skin irritation is suspected.
  • Wash hands if contact does occur to prevent transferring hairs near eyes or mouth.
  • Seek medical care for rashes or swelling from toxic reactions.
  • Teach curious children not to touch caterpillars without adult guidance.
  • Monitor for allergic responses to stings, which may require prompt treatment.

Take precautions around unfamiliar species until confirm non-toxicity.

FAQ About Black and Red Fuzzy Caterpillars

What caterpillars sting humans?

Venomous stinging caterpillars include puss caterpillars, saddleback slugs, and io moth caterpillars. Their specialized spines or hairs detach and cause painful skin reactions. Others like buck moths cause rashes without detaching from the body.

What does a venomous caterpillar sting feel like?

The sensation varies between species but generally causes immediate burning pain followed by throbbing. Skin becomes red and swollen near hair/spine entry points. Headache, nausea, numbness, and rash can also occur with moderate-severe reactions.

How dangerous are fuzzy caterpillars?

While many fuzzy caterpillars are harmless, some species have irritating hairs and venom that cause skin reactions ranging from mild rashes to significant swelling requiring medical treatment. Knowing specific species’ risks prevents dangerous exposures, especially for kids.

Should you kill poisonous caterpillars?

Avoid killing any non-threatening caterpillars, which are important pollinators. But nursing advice may recommend removing venomous species like puss caterpillars discovered near children’s play areas to eliminate sting risks through careful hand protection and relocation.

What animals eat poisonous caterpillars?

Birds with fast metabolisms are adapted to eat venomous caterpillars like saddlebacks. The toxins do not accumulate significantly in their systems. Hooded owls devour dangerous io moth caterpillars as well. These predators help check proliferating populations.

Are black caterpillars poisonous?

Black color does not definitively indicate toxicity. But certain black caterpillars like buck moths and hickory tussocks are venomous. However, others like black swallowtails and woolly bears are harmless. Knowing exact species is key to determining risks.

Are fuzzy red and black caterpillars dangerous?

Several fuzzy red and black species like buck moths, io moth caterpillars, and hickory tussocks have irritating hairs and should only be handled gently with gloves. But fuzzy caterpillars in those colors do not automatically mean guaranteed toxicity – each exact species must be identified.


Encountering caterpillars with striking black and red coloration demands caution initially before determining the species and any risks from venomous hairs or spines. But proper identification and gentle handling allows appreciation for these important pollinator larva. With care, their stings can be avoided to safely enjoy their striking colors as they feed.

About the author : Shaun W