You Can Look, But You’d Better Not Touch

It may appear cute, fuzzy, and pettable, but this pile of fluff attached to a grass blade at the Sandylands Sanctuary in East Texas is best avoided. A larval stage of the Black-Waved Flannel Moth (Megalopyge crispata), its hollow hairs contain toxins designed to protect the caterpillar from predators.

When other creatures — including humans — brush against the hairs, they break away and release the toxin, producing a painful rash or sting. Depending on the species and a person’s sensitivity, swelling and inflammation, numbness, or even fever and nausea might result.

The view from below


While younger Black-waved flannel moth larvae sport long, white wispy hairs, in their final larval stage they look very much like the best known stinging caterpillar in Texas: the Southern Flannel moth (Megalopyge opercularis). Commonly known as puss moths, or ‘asps,’ they can be abundant in live oak,  pecan, elm, and hackberry trees, as well as in yaupon and other shrubs.

Occasionally, they’ll drop from the trees onto cars or pavement below. When I found one on my car yesterday, it served as a timely reminder that their season has arrived.

The also-cute-but-dangerous Texas asp

Venomous hairs hidden beneath the silky outer hairs of the asp can deliver a sting even more painful than that of the Black-Waved flannel moth. Intense, throbbing pain can develop immediately upon contact, and other symptoms can include headaches, nausea, vomiting, and sometimes shock or respiratory stress. After my own first (and only) encounter with one of these critters, it took a day for the pain to subside, and several days for the red marks to disappear.

First aid advice for these caterpillar stings includes ice packs, baking soda, and the use of adhesive tape to pull broken spines out of the skin, but prevention — learning to recognize and avoid these caterpillars — beats every cure in the book. 


Comments always are welcome.

A Salty Old Girl

  Female Seaside Dragonlet on  Marsh Bristlegrass ~ Brazoria Wildlife Refuge

The Seaside Dragonlet (Erythrodiplax berenice) spends most of its time perched atop salt marsh plants; here, one rests on a stem of marsh bristlegrass (Setaria parviflora).

Perhaps ‘saltmarsh dragonlet’ would be a better name, since they’re often the only dragonfly in the marshes. Other dragonflies appear in coastal habitats, hunting insects over dunes and wetlands, but no other species is as tied to the coast as the dragonlet; they rarely appear inland, and are considered to be our only marine dragonfly.

The primary reason is their adaptation to salt. Like all dragonfly larvae, seaside dragonlet nymphs are aquatic, but their ability to regulate the concentration of salt within their bodies allows them to thrive in saltwater; researchers have found them tolerating water as much as three times the salinity of the ocean. In salt marshes, the seaside dragonlet often is the only medium-sized dragonfly — about an inch and a half long — that’s encountered.

Salt marshes are insect-rich, so dragonlets can afford to be a little lazy. They do less flying and more waiting than many species: launching themselves out to capture passing prey before returning to their perch.

Adult males are deep blue or black, with clear or nearly-clear wings; females show varying amounts of yellow atop the abdomen, and elaborate patterns of black-and-yellow striping on the sides of the thorax. As accomodating as they are attractive, they make fine subjects for a photographer.


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Sympathy for a Grasshopper


Even when my car’s covered in mud or dust — which happens frequently — I keep the windows clean: the better to see other drivers, as well as whatever might be blooming alongside the road.

Recently, another advantage of clean windows presented itself. While stopped at a traffic light in Fredericksburg, this little gem — a differential grasshopper (Melanoplus differentialis) — emerged from the security of its hidey-hole beneath the wipers and stared at me through the windshield.

When the light changed, I felt certain the grasshopper would fly off as I accelerated. Instead, it gripped the glass ever more tightly and stayed put: staring at me through ten, fifteen, and twenty-five miles per hour. By thirty-five, things were getting iffy, and finally, at forty-five, a look of what I imagined to be a combination of supplication and terror crossed the insect’s face.

I pulled over, captured this somewhat unusual view of the creature, and then stepped out of the car. Sensing its opportunity, the grasshopper flew off while I, in turn, returned to the car and drove off: happy for my own unusual opportunity.


Comments always are welcome.