Crystal Spindel Gaston was reaching into the rear door of her Prius outside her house when she felt an excruciating pain in her right leg.
“It felt exactly like a scorching-hot knife passing through the outside of my calf,” said Gaston, 55, of New Kent County. “Before I looked down to see where it came from, I thought 100 percent I was going to see a big piece of metal, super sharp, sticking out from my car.”
What she saw baffled her. Clinging to the car, just below the door, was a brownish, hairy creature, not quite two inches long, resembling a miniature cat, or maybe a tiny toupee — or to Gaston, a “Star Trek” fan, a furry alien called a tribble.
“That’s when my brain really flipped out,” Gaston said, “because I just didn’t know what I was looking at. I knew it was probably an animal or a hive or a cocoon or something, but it was no shape of any animal I had ever seen. It was a cross between like a mouse and a slug.”
Feeling “white-hot pain,” Gaston went to an emergency room. It would be three days before she started feeling normal again.
Gaston had brushed her leg Friday against a puss caterpillar, a little-known, little-seen insect that’s one of the most venomous caterpillars in the U.S. — some say the most venomous.
“In the United States, the most severe stings” of any caterpillar belong to the puss, according to a 2010 study for the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology.
The puss is normally uncommon in Virginia, but for some reason — probably a natural cycle — it seems pretty abundant this year, said Eric Day, manager of Virginia Tech’s Insect Identification Lab. “It just seems to be an outbreak year.”
The caterpillars are tiny when they hatch in early summer — about one-eighth of an inch long. People find them more often in late summers — like now — after the insects have had time to grow, up to about 1 ½ inch, experts say. The bigger ones pack a bigger wallop.
You are more likely to find the puss in backyards, where it eats tree leaves than deep in the forest, Day said. It is not a huge tree pest.
Reactions to the caterpillar’s sting include severe pain and, rarely, nausea, vomiting and even seizures. Reactions vary by a person’s sensitivity and by the amount of venom that’s released, experts say.
“I am not aware of fatal cases,” said Rutherfoord “Ruddy” Rose, director of the Virginia Poison Center at Virginia Commonwealth University. The center serves 3.2 million people in central and eastern Virginia.
“We receive an average of two-three cases a year – so not common here,” Rose said by email. “We get FAR more insect bites and even snake and spider bites than we do caterpillar stings.”
The puss is the caterpillar form of the small, harmless southern flannel moth. You can find it from Maryland to the Deep South and west to Texas. The puss is also called the asp or asp caterpillar, an apparent reference to the venomous snake of the Nile region.
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