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Caterpillars With Spots: An Identification Guide to Spotted Caterpillars (With Photos)

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Identify Your Spotted Caterpillar With This Easy, Accurate Guide

If you have found a caterpillar with spots, and you're wondering what it will turn into or if it will damage your garden, then this identification guide will help.

This guide will help you know if the caterpillar you have found is rare, or if it stings, or if it will wreak havoc on your garden. You can also find out what kind of butterfly or moth it turns into.

Citizen scientists, students, and people who are just plain curious about the natural world will find this guide to spotted caterpillars interesting!

The black swallowtail caterpillar has black spots within bands of green and yellow

The black swallowtail caterpillar has black spots within bands of green and yellow

The Bedstraw Hawk Moth

The Bedstraw Hawk Moth

Hyles gallii: The Bedstraw Hawk Moth

Quick Facts:

  • Is it rare? No, but it is mostly found in northern states and into Canada
  • What does it turn into? A beautiful moth that flies at dusk and acts like a hummingbird
  • Does it sting? No.
  • What does it eat? Bedstraw and fireweed
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No.
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes.

The adult caterpillar of Hyles gallii has bright spots and a pale line down the middle of the back (dorsum). Since it's a species of hawk moth, it has a curved horn just above the tail end like most others in the group (this includes the tomato hornworm). This horn is harmless and is always bright red in this species.

Adult Bedstraw hawkmoth

Adult Bedstraw hawkmoth

Snowberry clearwing caterpillar

Snowberry clearwing caterpillar

Hemaris diffinis: The Snowberry Cearlwing

Quick Facts:

  • Is it rare? No, and it can be very common in the right time and place
  • What does it turn into? A very cool moth that mimics a bumblebee
  • Does it sting? No.
  • What does it eat? Dogbane, honeysuckle, viburnum, hawthorn, snowberry, cherry, mint, and plum.
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No.
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes.

This cool little moth flies during the daylight, visiting flowers and hovering in front of them and looking a lot like bumblebee. This bit of mimicry probably helps protect it from being attacked by predators.

It occurs across North America, with many similar species throughout much of the Northern Hemisphere.

The snowberry clearwing moth

The snowberry clearwing moth

Fall webworm caterpillar

Fall webworm caterpillar

Hyphantria cunea: The Fall Webworm

Quick Facts:

  • Is it rare? No, it's very common.
  • What does it turn into? A pretty white moth
  • Does it sting? No, although some people may be sensitive to the caterpillar's stiff hairs.
  • What does it eat? Many different kinds of hardwoods.
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Yes, and in some cases can infest entire forests or stand of trees.
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Not recommended, since it is known as a pest species.

This spotted caterpillar lives communally in silk nests ("webs") that can often be seen late in the summer on many different trees. There are other caterpillars that build nests to live in together, but this is the only one with spots. The adult moth is a pretty gleaming white with small black spots.

Since this is considered to be a pest species, it is best not to try to raise the caterpillar to an adult.

Adult Fall Webworm Moth

Adult Fall Webworm Moth

White Satin Moth Caterpillar

White Satin Moth Caterpillar

Leucoma salicis: The White Satin Moth

Quick Facts:

  • Is it rare? No, but it is not very common in the US.
  • What does it turn into? A pretty white moth
  • Does it sting? No, although the stiff hairs can be irritating to some sensitive people.
  • What does it eat? Mostly poplar and willow leaves
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Not usually
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes.

This species was introduced into North America in the 1920's; before then, it was found widely across Europe but not in the New World. Since its introduction, it has become quite common in some areas.

The caterpillar has bright white spots and stiff hairs that may be irritating to some people. The moth is a beautiful shining white insect that sometimes comes to lights at night.

Adult white satin moth

Adult white satin moth

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Saturnia species: Emperor Moths

Quick Facts:

  • Is it rare? These moths are not generally very common.
  • What does it turn into? A beautiful moth.
  • Does it sting? No.
  • What does it eat? Many trees, including birches, oaks, and fruit trees.
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Not usually
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes! Give the caterpillar plenty of its food plant and a safe place to live.

This spectacular moth is one of Europe's most beautiful and well-known moth species. The caterpillar is bright green with pink spots, but it can sometimes have slightly different shades. This species and several similar ones can be found throughout the Palearctic region, with others occurring in the western United States.

Any time you find a large caterpillar with green or brownish ground color and distinct, spiny spots, you might have come across this amazing species. If so, consider yourself lucky!

An emperor moth

An emperor moth

Forest tent caterpillar

Forest tent caterpillar

Malacosoma disstria: The Forest Tent Caterpillar

Quick Facts:

  • Is it rare? No, very common
  • What does it turn into? A pretty brown furry moth
  • Does it sting? No.
  • What does it eat? Many forest trees
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Yes, it can be a serious pest when the population explodes
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Not advised, since it can be a pest species.

The forest tent caterpillar is a lovely blue with cream spots, but its attractive appearance belies this caterpillar's devastating effect on forests. At times, these caterpillars become so abundant in infested forests that you can actually hear them eating in the trees above you, and their poops – called "frass" – patter to the ground around you. An outbreak of the forest tent caterpillar is a very serious event that can destroy parts of a forest!

Female forest tent caterpillar moth with a mass of eggs.

Female forest tent caterpillar moth with a mass of eggs.

Achemon sphinx caterpillar

Achemon sphinx caterpillar

Eumorpha achemon: The Achemon Sphinx

Quick Facts:

  • Is it rare? No, but it's not very commonly found
  • What does it turn into? A cool looking moth
  • Does it sting? No.
  • What does it eat? Grapes and other vines
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Not usually
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes.

This caterpillar, with its elongated spots against either brown or bright green background, can often be found crawling on the ground in late summer, as it looks for a place to burrow into the ground and pupate.

The adult moths are very seldom seen or noticed, despite their large size and robust shape. They are well-camouflaged and only occasionally can be found at lights.

The achemon sphinx moth

The achemon sphinx moth

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Papilio troilus: The Spicebush Swallowtail

This is a cool caterpillar with fake snake eyes. The effect is even better when it sticks out its "osmeteria," a red, forked organ that it can stick out from behind its head when it's feeling bothered. The osmeteria looks a lot like the forked tongue of a snake, and it also smells bad. Pretty good defense for an otherwise tasty caterpillar! This one turns into the big, beautiful spicebush swallowtail.

Quick Facts:

  • Is it rare? No, but it's not very common in the northern states.
  • What does it turn into? A beautiful butterfly.
  • Does it sting? No.
  • What does it eat? The spicebush, and other members of the genus Lindera.
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No.
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes.
Adult spicebush swallowtail

Adult spicebush swallowtail

Black swallowtail caterpillar

Black swallowtail caterpillar

Papilio polyxenes: The Black Swallowtail

This caterpillar looks a lot like the monarch caterpillar—and that may not be an accident. Like the monarch, the black swallowtail is likely "protected" by the bitter sap of the plants that it eats.

The black swallowtail caterpillar eats the leaves of carrots and other Umbelliferae species like carrots and parsley. These plants have bitter saps and juices, which gets into the caterpillar's tissues and makes it taste bad to birds and other animals that might try to eat them.

This attractive caterpillar turns into a beautiful butterfly known as the black swallowtail.

Quick Facts:

  • Is it rare? No, but it isn't always common in all areas.
  • What does it turn into? The gorgeous black swallowtail butterfly.
  • Does it sting? No.
  • What does it eat? Parsley, carrots, and dill.
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Sometimes they can eat a lot of carrot greens.
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, if you give it an upright stick to pupate on.
The black swallowtail

The black swallowtail

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Eumorpha pandorus: The Pandorus Sphinx Moth

Quick Facts:

  • Is it rare? This species is not rare but it is seldom seen.
  • What does it turn into? A truly gorgeous moth.
  • Does it sting? No.
  • What does it eat? Grape and Virginia creeper, among other plants.
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Not usually.
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes.

This bright orange beauty is one form of a somewhat common type of sphinx moth larva—the other form is green, with big spots, and it's just as beautiful as the orange-brown version. If you find one, you can be sure you've found a truly special insect


Pandorus sphinx moth

Pandorus sphinx moth

Norape ovina caterpillar

Norape ovina caterpillar

Norape ovina

Quick Facts:

  • Is it rare? This species is not rare but it is seldom seen.
  • What does it turn into? A furry white moth
  • Does it sting? Yes!
  • What does it eat? Willows and other plants
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Not usually.
  • Can you raise it to an adult? Yes, but it may be difficult

This seldom-encountered, venomous caterpillar occurs in much of the eastern United States. These caterpillars are small but easy to spot, with their bright white markings on a dark background. The venom is conveyed by special hairs that are hard to see, but when they brush your skin, you'll feel a sting. I have found the adult moths to be not uncommon, but I've never seen the caterpillar in nature.

Norape ovina adult moth

Norape ovina adult moth

Thanks for Using This Guide to Spotted Caterpillars

We hope that this guide helped you identify your caterpillar. There may be a few other species with spots, so if you don't see your caterpillar in this guide, don't give up! Check out some of the sources listed below, and good luck!

Resources

The following resources were consulted for this guide:

https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/wildlife/how-identify/identify-caterpillars

http://ipm.ucanr.edu/PMG/invertebrates/menu.caterpillars.html

https://www.srs.fs.usda.gov/compass/2018/04/26/very-crafty-caterpillars/

https://extension.umaine.edu/home-and-garden-ipm/critter-id/photo-gallery/photos-caterpillars-to-adults/



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