In 1967, James Tiberius Kirk, Captain of the Starship Enterprise, had a run in with a harmless looking creature called a Tribble, in an episode called "The Trouble with Tribbles." Members aboard the ship wanted to keep them as pets because they were soft, furry, and cooed. Kirk believed they were innocuous until he was caught off guard by their proliferation rate, which endangered life aboard the Enterprise. This is a sound lesson to remember should one encounter a Megalopyge opercularis. This furry caterpillar has many common names to include puss caterpillar, pussy caterpillar, southern flannel moth, flannel moth, tree asp, asp caterpillar, and Megalopygidae.
Like the Tribble, this caterpillar comes in varied sizes and shades of color. Unlike Tribbles, what threatens people is not its proliferation rate, but its poisonous spines found buried in its furry exterior. The spines are as sharp as that of cacti, but they have a hollow area that secretes a toxic compound to ward off threats. The spines are typically no thicker than 45 microns. Therefore, they are not easily seen by the naked eye. If a person dares to touch this toxic Tribble, it can result in swelling, numbness, itchy rash, anxiety, nausea, vomiting, fever, headache/migraine, muscle cramping, swollen glands, chest pain, trouble breathing, and an overall feeling of weakness. Children and the elderly typically experience more severe reactions and symptoms usually occur within the first 24 hours. The months with the highest instances of reported stings are from July to November, although stings have been reported at other times of the year. Since there is such a wide array of allergic reactions, if exposed the best course of action is to contact a doctor's office. Best said, this caterpillar is a look but do not touch.
The Megalopyge opercularis are principally found in the southern United States, Mexico, Central, and South America regions. Just like any other caterpillar, they can be found along tree branches, on bushes, vines, railings, and the ground. There are approximately 220 subspecies to the Megalopygidae family, and each is believed to carry a similar defense mechanism. In the winter months, they are in their cocoon phase. However, this does not make them "pettable." Their cocoons are equally dangerous, as the caterpillar detaches itself from its furry exterior when it is time to transform into a moth. The spines in the fur remain stinger sharp and continue to excrete poison during the transformation process.
This is a truly amazing creature and a wonderful encounter, when tempered with restraint and respect for another being. Remember, think about "The Trouble with Tribbles," to resist their alluring affects, and get the photographic shot, not the allergy shot.