What kinds of caterpillars can you find in Illinois?
Caterpillars are some of the MOST fascinating insects in the world! It always amazes me that caterpillars eventually turn into butterflies or moths.
There are hundreds of different caterpillar species found in Illinois!
Since it would be impossible to list them all in one article, I chose the 19 most interesting and common ones to share with you. 🙂
#1. Monarch Caterpillar
- Danaus plexippus
- This famous caterpillar is plump with black, white, and yellow bands.
- Its legs and pro-legs are pronounced, and each end of its body has spindly black tentacles.
- The Monarch’s preferred host plant is milkweed.
Like the adult butterfly, the Monarch is one of the most well-recognized caterpillars in Illinois!
Their distinctive stripes and tentacles make them look cartoonish. But this highly visible coloring sends a message to predators: Back Off!
Monarch Caterpillars are toxic to most animals, and at the very least, taste bad! This poison comes from their diet, which is almost entirely made up of milkweed. Toxins from the milkweed plant stay in the caterpillar, producing a bitter taste and poisonous effects.
If you have milkweed in your yard or nearby, your chance of finding Monarch Caterpillars is excellent! Honestly, there is nothing more fun than finding these colorful insects on our milkweed plants and getting to watch them transform into adults!
- Coloring is light green with small yellow dots along the sides.
- This species is small and relatively thin and appears velvety.
- Cabbageworms’ host plants are Brassicas, including cabbage, kale, broccoli, and chard.
In Illinois, this species is often called the Imported Cabbageworm because it isn’t native to North America. It was introduced in shipments of cabbage and other brassica plants and soon became an invasive species.
Cabbageworms are considered agricultural pests and can do severe damage to crops to their host plants. Cabbage, brussels sprouts, broccoli, and cauliflower are all susceptible to damage. For a home gardener, the best way to deal with Cabbageworms is to prevent a large infestation. Plant covers, regular weeding, and varied plantings can all help with preventing this hungry invader!
One reason Cabbageworms are so damaging is that they are voracious eaters! They can easily skeletonize entire plants, eating everything but the toughest stems and midveins. Boring through heads of cabbage and making huge dents in broccoli are no problem for this Very Hungry Caterpillar!
Cabbageworms grow into Cabbage White Butterflies, which are one of the most abundant butterflies in Illinois! If you see a white butterfly in the spring, chances are it’s a Cabbage White!
#3. Woolly Bear
- Pyrrharctia isabella
- Coloring is black with a wide rusty-red band in the middle.
- As its name suggests, the Woolly Bear caterpillar is covered in dense, coarse hairs.
- Transform into Isabella Tiger Moths.
- Woolly Bears are generalist feeders, meaning they will live on and eat nearly any plant!
As a kid, I can remember hearing tons of stories about Woolly Bear caterpillars – and the coolest part about them is that most of the stories are true! One myth you might have heard is that Woolly Bears can predict the type of winter we’ll have. Unfortunately, this one isn’t true. But there’s plenty of other interesting facts about this cute little caterpillar!
The most fascinating thing about Woolly Bears is the way they hibernate.
That’s to say, they don’t hibernate at all! Instead of burrowing or pupating to escape the cold, Woolly Bears allow themselves to freeze solid. They have a unique chemical in their blood that allows them to thaw out and continue in the spring as if nothing happened!
You may have heard that Woolly Bear Caterpillars are venomous, but this isn’t entirely true. Their hairs don’t contain any toxins or irritants, but some people are sensitive to the hairs and may get a slight rash if they touch one. It’s best to observe the species without touching them, just in case.
Woolly Bear Caterpillars and their adult-form, Isabella Tiger Moths, are found in incredibly varied climates, even the Arctic! Because they will eat almost anything, including herbs, tree leaves, and grasses, they can be found pretty much anywhere plants are growing. Look for them in groups near the base of plants.
Just don’t expect them to take over for your meteorologist! 🙂
#4. Viceroy Caterpillar
- Limenitis archippus
- The coloring is mottled brown or green and white to resemble bird droppings.
- Two dark-colored horns on the head and small spines on the body.
- The chrysalis also resembles bird droppings hanging from a tree branch.
- The preferred host plants of Viceroy Caterpillars are willow, poplar, and cottonwood trees.
Viceroy Caterpillars are one of the ugliest caterpillars in Illinois!
This is by design; their lumpy, mottled appearance makes them look like bird droppings, warding off predators!
Interestingly, this isn’t the Viceroy’s only protection against predators. Viceroy Caterpillars eat plants that are rich in salicylic acid, which they store in their bodies. When predators try to eat them, they are rewarded with a strong, bitter flavor and an upset stomach. One taste and they learn to stay away!
Viceroy Caterpillars primarily live in open forests or fields, and they’re found across many different climates. Look for them during spring and summer, which is when the adults typically mate.
Interestingly, Viceroy and Monarch Caterpillars look almost identical.
#5. Large Maple Spanworm
- Prochoerodes lineola
- Gray-brown coloring with small black spots scattered on the body. Often this species has a bark-like pattern.
- Thin and stick-like with a knob on each end.
- Large Maple Spanworms use a huge variety of plants and trees as hosts: birch, maple, cherry, apple, oak, poplar, walnut, and willow trees; geranium, soybean, blueberry, and currant plants; and grass.
This species has one of the best camouflages of any caterpillar in Illinois!
Large Maple Spanworms look exactly like a bit of twig on a tree, even from up close! So, it’s hard to imagine any predator observant enough to try and eat one, which is precisely its goal.
Their camouflage is the only defense Maple Spanworms have because they aren’t poisonous. They’re a favorite snack for determined birds!
When they’re not imitating sticks, Large Maple Spanworms have an interesting way of getting around! They plant their front legs, arch their back in the air, and bring their back legs forward to meet their front. Then, they throw their front forward and repeat the whole process. They’re one of many caterpillars that move like this, earning them nicknames like inchworm, looper, or spanworm.
Large Maple Spanworm Moths are just as adept at camouflage as their larva – they look exactly like dead leaves clinging to a branch!
#6. Variegated Fritillary Caterpillar
- Euptoieta claudia
- Stripes of black, red, and white run the length of the body.
- Black branched spines stick out from each body segment in even rows.
- Variegated Fritillaries will use any plant in the violet or alder family as a host plant. These include common blue violets, yellow alder, and pansies.
Variegated Fritillary Caterpillars share the same name as their adult-form butterflies. They eat ornamental plants like violets, pansies, and passionflower.
Look for these caterpillars in Illinois in meadows, open lots, and fields.
The Variegated Fritillary’s chrysalis is the most beautiful of all the caterpillars in Illinois. This protective shell is where the caterpillar transforms into the adult butterfly. Its pearly white color and shiny gold spikes make it look like an expensive jeweled pendant!
#7. Curve-Lined Owlet Moth Caterpillar
- Phyprosopus callitrichoides
- The coloring is shades of brown and cream, occasionally near black.
- The distinctive body shape is spiky, contorted, and asymmetrical, like a dry leaf.
- Greenbriers are the host plant of choice for this species.
There’s a good chance you’ve seen a Curve-Lined Owlet Caterpillar in Illinois!
However, you may not have even realized it because this species is an expert at camouflage. Its body is meant to look like a dry, curled leaf clinging to a branch. I think it succeeded!
Interestingly, it isn’t only the larva of this species that hide in plain sight. Curve-Lined Owlet Moths also have coloring and texture that resembles a dry leaf. So, it seems like even though the insect goes through a complete metamorphosis, it keeps some of the survival traits into adulthood!
The host plant of the Curve-Lined Owlet Caterpillar is greenbrier, a vine plant common in many habitats. This species prefers woodland and nearby clearings, but it’s sometimes spotted in more developed areas like office parks or lush backyard gardens.
#8. Tobacco Hornworm
- Manduca sexta – Tobacco Hornworm
- Bright green with tiny white lines and black dots.
- There’s a thin, red, filament-like “horn” on the rear end.
- Hornworms grow up to 3.5 inches in length before metamorphosis.
Tobacco Hornworms are considered one of the most destructive caterpillars in Illinois.
They specialize in eating tobacco, tomato, and other similar plants and regularly cause problems for farms and growers who don’t use pesticides. However, relocating or killing the caterpillars can be enough for many home gardeners to deter any more from eating your plants.
One particularly disgusting enemy of the Tobacco Hornworm is Cotesia congregata. It’s a parasitoid wasp that attacks the caterpillar with venom and then lays its eggs INSIDE the living body. As the caterpillar matures, so do the wasp eggs, slowly feeding on the hornworm until it dies and the wasps hatch. Gross!
#9. White-Marked Tussock Caterpillar
- Orgyia leucostigma
- Black and yellow stripes run the length of the body with a large red spot on the head.
- Many tufts of hair-like spines.
- White-Marked Tussock Caterpillars will use nearly any coniferous or deciduous tree as a host!
The White-Marked Tussock Caterpillar wins the prize for the most interesting haircut!
Tufts of spiky hair give this caterpillar the look of having antennae, a tail, and spiky sides. In addition, four white tufts look like paintbrushes sprouting from its back. Talk about a unique style! And it doesn’t stop there – on the adult White-Marked Tussock Moth, the Antennae themselves are covered in fur!
The hairs on the White-Marked Tussock Caterpillar and its relatives are called urticating hairs, meaning they can cause a rash. Although it may be annoying and itchy, the inflammation isn’t dangerous, and this species is not venomous.
White-Marked Tussock Caterpillars sometimes have population outbreaks, where a local population swells exponentially. When these outbreaks happen, it’s common for colonies of the caterpillars to eat all of the leaves off of a tree, severely damaging them. Fortunately, there are quite a few natural predators that aren’t bothered by its hairiness and they are able to feast!
Viral infections eventually stop many population outbreaks of White-Marked Tussock Caterpillars. Alphabaculovirus, which is a class of viruses that infect and kill many caterpillars, moths, and butterflies, is mostly to blame. Infections spread quickly through White-Marked Tussock Caterpillar populations because they live closely together on the same host plant. The virus causes rapid sickness and death among infected individuals.
#10. Milkweed Tussock Caterpillar
- Euchaetes egle
- Tufts of black and white hairs cover the body, with one line of black-centered orange tufts along the back.
- The body is relatively thin and up to 1.5 inches long.
- As its name suggests, this species’ preferred host is Milkweed.
Despite looking very different, Milkweed Tussock Caterpillars in Illinois have a lot in common with Monarch caterpillars!
Milkweeds are the preferred host plant for both species. However, the really interesting thing about them isn’t what they eat; it’s why! Milkweed Tussock Caterpillars store a poisonous chemical from milkweed called cardiac glycoside in their body.
It doesn’t harm the caterpillar, but it does an effective job of making the caterpillar both disgusting and dangerous for many predators! In fact, Blue Jays have been known to vomit after eating just one of these furry little caterpillars.
The fascinating thing about cardiac glycoside is it stays in the caterpillar’s body through its transformation into a moth. So, even though Milkweed Tussock Moths don’t eat milkweed, they still have the benefits that the caterpillar’s diet created!
#11. Banded Tussock Caterpillar
- Halysidota tessellaris
- Coloring is pale cream, yellow, light brown, or white. Black tufts on the head and rear end stick out further than the white hairs.
- One darker line runs down the center of the back.
- Its preferred host plants are alder, ash, and fruit trees.
The Banded Tussock Caterpillar is similar in appearance to other Tussock Caterpillars, with one main difference – it’s actually not a true Tussock Caterpillar at all!
This master of disguise is actually the larva of the Pale Tiger Moth. Unlike true Tussock Caterpillars, this species isn’t venomous. However, some people are extra sensitive to the hairs that cover its body and may still get a rash. Even if you’ve identified a caterpillar as a Banded Tussock, it’s best to observe, not handle, the caterpillar!
Banded Tussock Caterpillars have an interesting way of forming their chrysalis when it’s time to transform into adult moths. They use their hairs to make a soft, felted cocoon that keeps them from freezing over winter!
#12. Giant Leopard Moth Caterpillar
- Hypercompe scribonia
- Black bristles cover the entire body with red rings evenly spaced.
- This caterpillar is often found curled in a ball, which is its defensive posture.
- Giant Leopard Moth Caterpillars eat the fruit and leaves of cherry, cabbage, dandelion, maples, orange, sunflowers, violets, and willows.
This unassuming caterpillar is hiding a big secret – it grows up to be a large and absolutely beautiful moth!
If you find one, you might mistake the Giant Leopard Moth Caterpillar for a Woolly Bear Caterpillar. It’s easy to confuse the two, and this species is sometimes called the Giant Woolly Bear! But the red rings on the Giant Leopard Moth caterpillar are narrower and run the length of its body.
As Giant Leopard Moth Caterpillars form a chrysalis, they shed the exoskeleton with their trademark bristly hairs. This makes the cocoon look like it’s wearing a large wig! 🙂
Adult Giant Leopard Moths are huge, up to 3.5 inches across, and bright white with a spotted pattern. They are intimidating moths, especially if you’re not expecting to find one. I recently saw one up close in my garage, and I certainly won’t forget the encounter anytime soon!
#13. Parsley Caterpillar (Black Swallowtail)
- Papilio polyxenes
- The coloring is bright green, with rings of black and yellow dots down the length of the body.
- The head and thorax are slightly larger than the back, and the legs and pro-legs are pronounced and visible even from a distance.
- Parsley plants are the preferred host of this species.
Parsley Caterpillars, sometimes called parsley worms, are the larva of the Black Swallowtail butterfly. They get their name from their preferred host and favorite snack, the parsley plant.
At first glance, it’s easy to mistake a Parsley Caterpillar for a Monarch. But, the coloring is slightly different, and the stripes on the Monarch Caterpillar are a bit thinner. It would also be unusual for a Monarch Caterpillar to eat parsley or other garden herbs since they eat milkweed almost exclusively!
If you’re a gardener, you might consider Parsley Caterpillars a bit of a nuisance since they can decimate a parsley plant quickly. But, if you plant some extra, you’ll be rewarded with sightings of the beautiful Black Swallowtail butterfly in a few weeks!
#14. Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Caterpillar
- The coloring is bright green with two large eyespots in white, black, and blue.
- The thorax is much larger than the middle and tail, giving the caterpillar the look of an enlarged head.
- The favorite host plants of this species are the tulip tree and wild black cherry.
This species is one of the strangest-looking caterpillars in Illinois!
The appearance of Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Caterpillars is so unique they inspired a Pokemon! Caterpie (the Pokemon) has the same features, including its horn-like Osmeterium, bulbous thorax, and large round eyespots. I consider this to be quite an honor! 🙂
This caterpillar’s primary defense is mimicry, using its unique shape and coloring to imitate a snake’s head. Additionally, as a young caterpillar, its color is brown and white to mimic bird droppings!
Interestingly, the adult Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly stands out in a crowd with its unique coloring and pattern.
Another defense of the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail is its Osmeterium, a horn-like organ that can be projected from the caterpillar’s head. Its dual functions are to mimic a snake’s forked tongue and to smell horrible to predators! Interestingly, to humans, the odor is strong but pleasant, like grass and pineapple!
#15. Spicebush Swallowtail Caterpillar
- Papilio troilus
- The coloring is bright yellow-green with white-ringed black eyespots and smaller black dots along the back.
- The head of this species is larger than the tail-end.
- The primary host plants are spicebush and white sassafras.
Spicebush Swallowtail Caterpillars, like other caterpillars in Illinois, are excellent at mimicry, both as larva and adults.
As adult butterflies, their coloring is similar to Pipevine Swallowtails, a similar species that has a bitter, foul taste. However, the truly remarkable mimicry is on display when this insect is still a caterpillar.
Its coloring is bright green, and its head is enlarged. On top, it has two large, round spots that look just like eyes, and it also has a forked red organ called an osmeterium that can be unfurled. All of these together make the caterpillar look like a fearsome green snake, especially to birds looking for a meal. Most potential predators steer clear!
As you might have guessed from its name this species prefers spicebush as its host plant. If you include spicebush in your garden, be sure it’s native to your area. You may be rewarded with a sighting of this wonderfully strange caterpillar or the beautiful adult butterfly!
#16. Cecropia Moth Caterpillar
- The coloring of this species changes with each instar growth. Most commonly seen in late instar; green with yellow, blue, and red bumps topped with black spikes.
- It has a large, fleshy body and very obvious leg appendages.
- Cecropia Caterpillars prefer birch, cherry, and maple trees for host plants.
Cecropia Caterpillars look more like aliens than anything!
Their bulbous bodies and multicolored, spiked nodules truly look like something from a sci-fi movie.
Look for Cecropia Caterpillars on maple, birch, and apple trees during late spring. They remain in their caterpillar stage for about two weeks before encasing themselves in their chrysalis for winter.
This species is one of many caterpillars in Illinois called a “silkworm”. The name refers to the silk cocoon they spin around their chrysalis in preparation to become a moth. The cocoons are brown and cling to the side of host plants, and look like dead leaves.
As strange as Cecropia Caterpillars look, it’s nothing compared to the adult Cecropia Moth. Not only is the pattern and coloring beautiful, but this moth is also ENORMOUS! In fact, it’s the largest moth in North America!
#17. Monkey Slug
- Phobetron pithecium
- Coloring is tan to brown with a lighter underside.
- Seven pairs of projections stick out from the sides of the flattened body.
- Monkey Slugs will use any woody-stemmed plant or tree as a host.
You shouldn’t have any trouble recognizing a Monkey Slug Caterpillar!
Its body shape is unique among caterpillars in Illinois. In fact, with its fourteen leg-like projections covered in dense hair, you might even think you’ve found a particularly hairy spider instead of a caterpillar!
Monkey Slugs look pretty intimidating. Despite their tough appearance, their venom isn’t potent and usually only produces a mild rash. Individuals are solitary, so it’s unusual to find more than one. Their most common hosts are grove and orchard trees like apple and chestnut.
Look for Monkey Slugs during late summer, when they are most active and preparing to form their chrysalis. Their adult form, the Hag Moth, won’t be active until the following spring.
#18. Spotted Apatelodes Caterpillar
- Apatelodes torrefacta
- Coloring varies from bright white to lemon yellow. Black spines, similar to antennae, protrude from the ends and back.
- It’s covered in soft, downy hairs that look like fur.
- Ash, maple, and oak trees are its favorite host plants.
If you’re looking for the cutest caterpillar in Illinois, look no further than the Spotted Apatelodes Caterpillar! This species, covered in downy fur with tufts of black hairs, looks like a cuddly stuffed animal to me!
Spotted Apatelodes Caterpillars aren’t venomous, but there are reports of people allergic to their hairs. Usually, this species is safe to touch and won’t hurt if you accidentally brush against one. However, if you’re unsure what species you’ve touched, you should seek medical advice!
This species is most active in late summer and uses many fruit trees as its host plant. Look for Spotted Apatelodes Caterpillars and adult Moths in orchards and groves. They shouldn’t be difficult to spot!
#19. Io Caterpillar
- Automeris io
- The coloring is green with two stripes along each side, one red and one white.
- Tufts of short green spines cover the body, with patches of light green showing through.
- Io Caterpillars use hackberry and willow trees as host plants.
Io Caterpillars are highly venomous, and their sting is excruciating!
Fortunately, the sting is rarely severe enough to seek medical attention. Instead, most experts recommend removing the spines with scotch tape, then applying ice to the sting. Over-the-counter antihistamines and pain relievers can also help.
Of course, the best way to stay safe is to avoid touching Io Caterpillars. Since they’re so recognizable, this should be pretty easy!
Their tufts of green spines are distinctive and hard to miss against darker green leaves or brown bark. The red and white stripes on the sides are also helpful – they clearly say, “Stay back, I’m dangerous!”
If you know you’re going to be gardening or doing yard work in an area with Io Moths or their caterpillars, it’s a good idea to wear a hat and gloves. That way, if you happen to brush against one, you won’t have to worry about exposed skin!
Adult Io Moths are just as distinctive as their larva – if not more so! They have a beautiful pattern with large, prominent eyespots. There are two color morphs:
Do you need more help identifying caterpillars in Illinois?
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Which of these caterpillars have you seen in Illinois?
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