types of caterpillar

20 Types of Caterpillars: Species, Facts and Photos

This article discusses a few types of caterpillars out of thousands inhabiting our planet. From their distinct traits to their varying habitats and intriguing behaviors, each species of these insects represents a unique aspect of our biodiversity. 

Let’s appreciate this life stage of moths and butterflies learning their substantial roles in our ecosystems. 

General Information about Caterpillars

Caterpillars are the larval stage of Lepidoptera, which comprises moths and butterflies

As larvae, caterpillars undergo several stages of growth - called instars. A molting event characterizes each stage. After reaching a target growth, they enter a pupal stage (chrysalis for butterflies), ultimately emerging as a fully-grown moth or butterfly. This transformative process is known as metamorphosis.

Caterpillars have elongated, cylindrical bodies segmented into three main parts: head, thorax, and abdomen. They have six true legs on their thorax and up to five pairs of prolegs to help them move. The caterpillars vary in size. Some can go as long as 5.5 inches, like the Giant Hawk Moth caterpillar. 

Since they are soft-bodied and slow-moving, they expose themselves to numerous threats. As a survival strategy, many adopt aposematism2, vividly displaying bright colors to signal potential toxicity or unpleasant taste to predators, subsequently deterring harmful interactions.

Moreover, they can live everywhere and feed on specific host plants or vegetation. For instance, Monarch caterpillars prefer milkweed plants, so they usually live in areas where these plants grow. 

All caterpillar species are essential to our ecosystems as they are not only consumers of vegetation but also a food source for many animals.

Read More: Caterpillar Facts.

20 Types of Caterpillar Butterflies And Moths

1. Hag Moth Caterpillar (Phobetron pithecium)

hag moth caterpillar
Photo by Judy Gallagher on Flickr licensed under CC BY 2.0 (Cropped from original).

The Hag Moth Caterpillar has a flat, hairy body that ranges from brown to tan. It has nine pairs of projections covered with tentacle-like hairs that serve as a defensive mechanism against predators. 

This brown caterpillar commonly lives in gardens, orchards, and forests, feeding on deciduous trees. The Hag Moth Caterpillar's peculiar appearance allows it to blend into its surroundings and evade predators. It is harmless to humans and is not considered a pest. 

Notably, the life cycle of Hag Moth Caterpillars begins when a female moth lays her eggs on the underside of leaves, and the larvae hatch after two weeks. 

2. Pale Tussock Caterpillar (Calliteara pudibunda)

Pale Tussock Caterpillar
Photo by Smudge 9000 on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 (Cropped from original).

The Pale Tussock Caterpillar is native to Europe and some parts of the Middle East. This striking bright green caterpillar has long yellow hair-like tufts and a segmented body with black bands in between.

It uses its rear legs to perform a unique looping motion while navigating hedgerows, gardens, woodland edges, and orchards. The caterpillar feeds on deciduous trees, especially oak, hazel, and willow, but it also consumes garden plants.

3. Funerary Dagger Moth Caterpillar (Acronicta funeralis)

Funerary Dagger Moth Caterpillar
Photo by Jacy Lucier on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 (Cropped from original).

The Funerary Dagger Moth Caterpillar is a nocturnal creature indigenous to North America. It has a dark, starry coat adorned with white speckles across its black body. Moreover, it gained its name due to the dagger-like markings in adult moths. 

It feeds on the leaves of deciduous trees at night and prefers to eat alone. The caterpillars are generally harmless to humans. However, avoid touching them as their hairs can cause skin irritation.

4. Privet Hawk Moth Caterpillar (Sphinx ligustri)

Privet Hawk Moth Caterpillar
Photo by Bijay Chaurasia on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 (Cropped from original).

The Privet Hawk Moth Caterpillar is a green caterpillar with purple and white stripes. It also has a black and yellow horn on its rear. When it transforms into a moth, it has a wingspan of up to 4.7 inches, a grey coat, and a body striped in pink and black, resembling a hawk.

This caterpillar is native to Europe and Asia, where it feeds on privet, ash, lilac, and jasmine and adapts to different climates. 

5. Garden Tiger Caterpillar (Arctia caja)

Garden Tiger Caterpillar
Photo by Dean Morley on Flickr licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0 (Cropped from original).

The Garden Tiger caterpillar, also known as the “woolly bear,” has a notable furry coat comprising black and orange-brown hairs, which it uses to defend itself against predators. 

While they might cause skin irritations when touched, they are harmless to humans. 

This extremely hairy caterpillar eats nettles, docks, and various garden plants. Its varied diet supports its growth, enabling it to reach up to 2.4 inches in size. 

Additionally, the plants it eats play a role in its survival strategy. The toxins in their meals are transferred to the adult Garden Tiger Moth, making it unpalatable to predators.

6. Mullein Moth Caterpillar (Cucullia verbasci)

Mullein Moth Caterpillar
Photo by Saturnine42 on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 (Cropped from original).

The Mullein Moth Caterpillar lives in Europe and Asia and consumes various plants. These distinctive whitish caterpillars also have bright yellow coloration that warns predators of their unpalatability. 

Moreover, it curls up into a ball to protect itself when threatened. Although it may look dangerous, it is not harmful to humans.

7. Drinker Moth Caterpillar (Euthrix potatoria)

Drinker Moth Caterpillar
Photo by gailhampshire on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY 2.0 (Cropped from original).

The Drinker Moth Caterpillar is a unique insect species in Europe. Its body coloration comprises hues ranging from bright yellows to soft greens. The hump on its back adds to its unique silhouette. It mainly hydrates through dew, hence the name 'Drinker.' 

Moreover, the caterpillar puffs itself up when a predator approaches to appear larger and also has a dense coat of irritating hairs. They feed on grasses, leaves, deciduous trees, and shrubs.

8. Monarch Caterpillar (Danaus plexippus)

monarch caterpillar
Photo by Victor Korniyenko on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 (Cropped from original).

The Monarch caterpillar has striking black, white, and yellow stripes. It lives in various parts of the world. 

This caterpillar has an interesting relationship with the milkweed plant, its only food source. As it consumes the plant, it aids in its pollination, creating a mutually beneficial relationship. 

The plant contains a toxin that protects it against predators, making the caterpillar a walking chemical weapon. Despite its toxicity, the Monarch caterpillar is prey for various birds and insects.

Unfortunately, monarch populations may decline if people continuously use herbicides to kill milkweeds1.

9. Peacock Caterpillar (Inachis io)

Peacock Caterpillar
Photo by gailhampshire on Flickr licensed under CC BY 2.0 (Cropped from original).

The Peacock Caterpillar is a juvenile form of the Peacock Butterfly, which lives in the leafy green environments of Europe and Asia. Their favorite food plants are nettles. They can also survive on hops and small-leaved lime. 

Its body is black and speckled with tiny white dots, which helps it blend into the undergrowth. These butterfly caterpillars have short, black spines that act as armor against any potential threats. 

10. Puss Caterpillar (Megalopyge opercularis)

Puss Caterpillar
Photo by touterse on Flickr licensed under CC BY 2.0 (Cropped from original).

The Puss Caterpillar is a venomous caterpillar in the southern United States. It has a fuzzy exterior that you might mistake for a Persian cat or toupee. It feeds on various plant leaves and plays a role in controlling plant populations. 

Like most caterpillars, it lays its eggs on the leaves of host plants. Then, the larvae undergo several molts before reaching the pupal stage. The cocoon transforms into an attractive moth with long, dark hairs and wings dotted with spots. 

However, one must remember that beneath the soft hairs of the Puss Caterpillar are venomous spines3. These can cause severe pain, swelling, nausea, burning, abdominal distress, and headache

11. Giant Leopard Moth Caterpillar (Hypercompe scribonia)

Giant Leopard Moth Caterpillar
Photo by Judy Gallagher on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY 2.0 (Cropped from original).

The Giant Leopard Moth caterpillar is native to North America.  Their diverse diet includes various plant species, such as the dandelion and the violet, which help break down plant matter and recycle nutrients into the ecosystem. Moreover, they survive harsh winters by remaining dormant and waiting for spring's warmth. 

They have black bristles and black and red-banded bodies, reaching up to 2 inches in length. Their appearance is effective for warding off predators. Since they face constant threats from predators, they also roll into a tight ball to protect themselves. 

12. Eastern Black Swallowtail Caterpillar (Papilio polyxenes)

Eastern Black Swallowtail Caterpillar
Photo by KLaCour on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 (Cropped from original).

The Eastern Black Swallowtail Caterpillar is a native of the eastern US and as far west as the Rocky Mountains. It has black and yellow stripes and faux eyespots near the head. When threatened, it extends an orange forked gland known as an osmeterium that releases a foul odor. 

You might see them in backyard gardens or sprawling meadows. They prefer to munch on vegetables belonging to the carrot family.

13. American Dagger Caterpillar (Acronicta americana)

American Dagger Caterpillar
Photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY 2.0 (Cropped from original).

The American Dagger Moth Caterpillar is a yellow or white species in North America with long, black hair tufts. Its hairs can cause skin irritation, so avoid touching it. 

It is nocturnal and feeds on the leaves of trees such as maple, oak, willow, and elm. After a month, it wraps itself into a cocoon and emerges as a gray or brown moth.

14. Saddleback Caterpillar (Acharia stimulea)

Saddleback Caterpillar
Photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY 2.0 (Cropped from original).

The Saddleback Caterpillar is a species of caterpillar found in the eastern United States. It is a solitary creature feeding on a variety of plants. It has a saddle-shaped pattern on its green back and is known for its urticating hairs, a defense mechanism. 

15. Imperial Moth Caterpillar (Eacles imperialis)

Imperial Moth Caterpillar
Photo by Judy Gallagher on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY 2.0 (Cropped from original).

The Imperial Moth Caterpillar lives in Canada's dense forests and Mexico's sun-filled expanses. Its body changes colors from green to brown or black, with yellow bands warning predators. The caterpillar undergoes distinct chapters called instars; its final instar can reach 4 inches long. 

It feeds on trees such as pine, oak, maple, and sweetgum. Additionally, it burrows into the ground and undergoes pupation during winter, waiting to emerge as a moth in late spring or early summer.

16. Polyphemus Moth Caterpillar (Antheraea polyphemus)

Polyphemus Moth Caterpillar
Photo by Judy Gallagher on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY 2.0 (Cropped from original).

The Polyphemus Moth Caterpillar is a species of caterpillar found in North America, with a length of up to 3.5 inches. It has a green body with yellow lines running diagonally along the sides, providing camouflage. 

The caterpillar feeds mainly on the leaves of broad-leaved trees and undergoes metamorphosis to become a pupa in a cocoon made of silk and leaves. After a while, the adult moth emerges in spring or early summer with wings stretching up to six inches. 

17. Hickory Horned Devil Caterpillar (Citheronia regalis)

 Hickory Horned Devil Caterpillar
Photo by Mcevan on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 (Cropped from original).

The Hickory Horned Devil Caterpillar lives in deciduous forests throughout the eastern United States. They are one of the largest caterpillars, with sizes up to 5.5 inches. Its big, curved horns protrude from its body and warn potential predators. Despite its looks, it is harmless and has no stinging capabilities. 

The caterpillar feeds on the leaves of trees such as hickory, walnut, persimmon, sweet gum, and sumac. After it has eaten enough food, it undergoes a complete metamorphosis, transforming into the Regal Moth.

18. Tiger Swallowtail Caterpillar (Papilio glaucus)

Tiger Swallowtail Caterpillar
Photo by Jacy Lucieron Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 (Cropped from original).

The Tiger Swallowtail Caterpillar lives in North America. It feeds on the leaves of deciduous trees and shrubs and undergoes a remarkable transformation as it matures. 

In its juvenile stage, it resembles bird droppings, disguising it from predators. As it grows, it becomes a green, eye-spotted creature with a gland that releases a stinky smell to deter predators.

19. Io Moth Caterpillar (Automeris io)

Io Moth Caterpillar
Photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY 2.0 (Cropped from original).

The Io Moth Caterpillar is a visually striking caterpillar found in North America. Its body is predominantly green and adorned with white and red stripes, along with spiky urticating hairs that serve as a defensive mechanism to deter predators. 

The Io Moth Caterpillar feeds on the leaves of different trees and shrubs, such as willows, cherries, and apples. It is primarily a nocturnal creature hiding within the vegetation during the day. 

Despite its elusive behavior, it has a vital role in the ecosystem, aiding the breakdown of plant materials and contributing to the nutrient cycling process. 

Moreover, this caterpillar's urticating hairs can cause discomfort for humans.

20. Elephant Hawk-Moth (Deilephila elpenor)

Elephant Hawk-Moth
Photo by Alison Day on Flickr licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0 (Cropped from original).

You can find Elephant Hawk-Moth caterpillars from July to September. These caterpillars have a greyish-green or brown appearance with two enormous black eyespots located near their head. They also have a spiky tail on the rear. This unique feature helps them to scare off potential predators when threatened. 

The last type of caterpillar on this list has a varied diet and feeds on willowherbs, fuchsia, and bedstraw. 

During the winter, the caterpillars overwinter as chrysalides, often hiding among low vegetation or in the soil to protect themselves until spring. Once they mature, they transform into adult butterflies that feed on nectar. 

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1

Pleasants, J. M., & Oberhauser, K. S. (2012). Milkweed loss in agricultural fields because of herbicide use: effect on the monarch butterfly population. Insect Conservation and Diversity, 6(2), 135–144.

2

Stevens, M., & Ruxton, G. D. (2011). Linking the evolution and form of warning coloration in nature. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 279(1728), 417–426.

3

Eagleman, D. M. (2008). Envenomation by the asp caterpillar (Megalopyge opercularis). Clinical Toxicology, 46(3), 201–205.

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