Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Texas has many things inimical to human skin

with 25 comments

On November 20th I worked my way into the median on E. Howard Lane to photograph some fruit-bearing possumhaws and yaupons (Ilex decidua and vomitoria, respectively). On a couple of the trees I noticed several furry little tan or grey bundles that I later learned aren’t bundles of joy, at least not where human skin is concerned. Fortunately I didn’t touch any of the critters, which bugguide.net has identified as Megalopyge opercularis, known as the southern flannel moth caterpillar, puss caterpillar, asp, and perrito (Spanish for ‘puppy’). The Bugguide entry for this species includes a cautionary note: “Occasionally, in outbreak years, puss caterpillars are sufficiently numerous to defoliate some trees…. However, their main importance is medical. In Texas, they have been so numerous in some years that schools in San Antonio in 1923 and Galveston in 1951 were closed temporarily because of stings to children….” You’re welcome to read a more recent account of envenomations.

© 2020 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

December 23, 2020 at 4:18 AM

25 Responses

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  1. Fascinating to read, but luckily their habitat does not extend into our country.

    picpholio

    December 23, 2020 at 5:12 AM

    • Yes, it’s one less thing you need to worry about. Even here in Texas, I’m not sure I’d ever seen this kind of caterpillar until the day I took these pictures.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 23, 2020 at 7:08 AM

  2. Gee, I’ve never been tempted to touch a fuzzy caterpillar, but I’m not sure I would even notice one if I was fixated on those bright red fruits!

    Littlesundog

    December 23, 2020 at 6:54 AM

    • Yes, it was the little fruits that I was after and I ended up finding some thing unexpected, as so often happens in nature. I’ll have another post coming up soon in which the little fruits really do play the main role in, and a glorious one it is when they’re dense. Stay tuned.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 23, 2020 at 7:11 AM

  3. ¡Perro malo! The holly berries are great, though.

    Robert Parker

    December 23, 2020 at 7:51 AM

    • Yup, a bad puppy dog and a bad pussy cat.

      The little red fruits on these trees weren’t all that numerous, though you get a good close look at a few here. A large possumhaw can produce thousands of them and put on quite a show, as I’ve shown before and will again soon.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 23, 2020 at 9:19 AM

  4. If you hadn’t mentioned the presence of this strange-looking caterpillar I would have taken it as a wilted leaf among the red berries. I guess the poison which is irritating the skin is the puss caterpillar’s protection from voracious birds.

    Peter Klopp

    December 23, 2020 at 8:39 AM

    • From voracious birds and from overly inquisitive people, especially children. I understand how you could’ve taken these caterpillars as parts of the tree. I’m familiar enough with possumhaws to have recognized right away that I was seeing something else, even if I wasn’t sure what.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 23, 2020 at 9:22 AM

  5. It seems a little unfair~its fuzziness invites touch. Not a very attractive moth as an adult, although it does look like a dog’s face, doesn’t it?

    melissabluefineart

    December 23, 2020 at 9:05 AM

    • It’s an effective (and painful) lesson that not everything is as it seems. I looked at the bugguide pictures of the moth but couldn’t see a dog’s face. Maybe if I had more experience with dogs.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 23, 2020 at 9:26 AM

  6. I’ve come in contact with those asps, or their relatives, as a child. Those “puppies” are just too fuzzy for little kids to resist–not fun! Lovely set of shots, though: asp-n-berries!

    Tina

    December 23, 2020 at 9:32 AM

    • A Texan speaks from (painful) experience.
      Too bad Colorado is so far away or else I could show Aspen berries along with asp-n-berries.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 23, 2020 at 10:15 AM

  7. I’ve heard of these caterpillars, but happy to not have seen one.

    Lavinia Ross

    December 23, 2020 at 10:04 AM

  8. I had never heard of these caterpillars before a few weeks ago. Someone near me in Georgia posted a picture of one. I dig around my garden and yard a lot, and now know better than to touch one, because they sure look harmless!

    Jerome (EarthSunFilm)

    December 23, 2020 at 1:46 PM

    • Then we’re about even, because I became aware of this genus and its dangers only last month.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 23, 2020 at 3:01 PM

  9. Beautiful with a clear Texas sky as a backdrop.

    lulu

    December 23, 2020 at 6:19 PM

    • It’s a pretty common device of mine to use a clear blue sky as an isolating device, and often also to present a contrasting color to the subject, as here against the red fruit.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 23, 2020 at 6:43 PM

  10. Interesting camouflage. We have tussock moths that irritate the skin up here, too, but thankfully, not so many as to close schools!

    Eliza Waters

    December 23, 2020 at 7:23 PM

    • Those Texas school closings were a long time ago. My guess is that as the state has grown much more urban and kids on average now spend less time in nature, run-ins with these caterpillars have decreased. Nature photographers might be a different story.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 23, 2020 at 7:45 PM

  11. You were twice lucky. It was good luck that you didn’t bump one before you saw it, and equal luck that you found them in such a great spot for photos. I’ve never seen one on a plant; they’re always on my car, or on metal stair railings, or carport supports. They seem to have a taste for metal, though I have no idea why that might be. They really are attractive, and their fuzziness certainly invites touching. I’m really glad you missed feeling their effects.

    shoreacres

    December 24, 2020 at 7:40 PM

    • How strange that you’ve never seen one on something natural. I wonder if your crispata species has different predilections from the opercularis species I found in Austin. Your cautionary tale eight days earlier no doubt made me especially wary of touching the little furry things I came across on Howard Lane, even though at the time I didn’t realize what I was photographing.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 24, 2020 at 9:44 PM

  12. Wonderful colours against that bright blue sky … what lens did you use Steve

    Julie@frogpondfarm

    December 28, 2020 at 12:31 PM

    • It was the lens I use the most often of all the ones I own: the 100mm macro. A regular lens can’t get close enough to do justice so such small objects: the red fruits in these pictures measure between 6 and 8 mm in diameter.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 28, 2020 at 1:53 PM


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