The moths and butterflies of Ohio go through distinctive metamorphic developmental stages on their way to becoming adult winged insects. Caterpillars are moths and butterflies in their larval stages of growth. The rapidly growing caterpillar sheds its skin several times in a process called molting. The moth caterpillar then spins a silken cocoon around itself, or grows a thick skin called a chrysalis if it's a butterfly.
Ohio butterfly caterpillars are picky eaters, feeding on only a few species-specific leaf types. The orange-striped zebra swallowtail caterpillar will only eat pawpaw leaves. The monarch butterfly larva devours milkweed leaves, then turns into a green pupa often seen hanging on the undersides of milkweed leaves. Many swallowtail caterpillar species feature large eye spots to scare off predators. The viceroy butterfly larva is called the "little dragon" because of its reptilian appearance. The great spangled fritillary caterpillar and the viceroy larva both have spiny skins.
Most of the moth caterpillars of Ohio feed on leaves all summer, then burrow underground to form earthen cells where they spend their pupal stage of development. Some moth caterpillars spin cocoons anchored to tree branches. Other species conceal their cocoons among dead leaves. Notable Ohio moth caterpillars are the catalpa worm, or catalpa sphinx moth larva, and the prometha moth larva, also known as the silk moth caterpillar. Catalpa worms are a popular bait amongst fishermen.
Some kinds of Ohio caterpillars grow very large. The Carolina sphinx moth larva, known as the tomato or tobacco hornworm, reaches up to 6 inches in length. The hickory horned devil caterpillar also grows to be 6 inches long. It develops into the royal walnut moth. The 2.75-inch, bright green, segmented luna moth pupa feeds on the leaves of several broad-leaf trees. The bigger caterpillar species are most noticeable while crossing the lawn in late summer looking for a place to pupate.
Some Ohio caterpillars are venomous, with hollow stinging spines or sharp hairs connected to poison glands. Most of the stinging types are found on the leaves of trees, shrubs and vegetable plants. The saddleback caterpillars have stinging spines on the tips of horns running the length of their bodies. Io moth larvae appear furry, with clusters of stinging hairs that easily break off and stick in your skin. The puss caterpillar has the strongest venom of the stinging species. It has long hairs and short spines that discharge poison on contact.
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