Giant Leopard Caterpillar

8146 - Hypercompe scribonia - Giant Leopard Moth caterpillar

A little while ago Dan brought a caterpillar up to my study where I was working at my computer. It was a big guy, the size of my thumb, fuzzy black with bright red bands between the body segments. It was a Giant Leopard Moth (Hypercompe scribonia), perhaps my favourite caterpillar species. The first time I encountered this species was at the lake house a few years ago. I got the adults to my moth light, first, and later found a caterpillar in our yard. For whatever reason the species was high on my must-see list, so I was pretty stoked when I found the first one.

When we moved I was a little disappointed to be leaving them behind. The lake house was in a unique area where the habitat has many Carolinian characteristics and a number of typically more southern species are present, but our new house, about 35 km north, was outside of that pocket. We don’t have Cerulean Warblers or Black Rat Snakes here, no Yellow-throated Vireos or Five-lined Skinks. Or Giant Leopard Moths, I thought.

8146 - Hypercompe scribonia - Giant Leopard Moth caterpillar

But then, a couple months after we’d moved, Dan brought me a fuzzy black caterpillar with red bands. I was surprised and delighted, but also puzzled. At the time I was just getting started on the range maps for the moth field guide. To draw them I’d comb the printed and online data I had available for each species and compile the data points into an understanding of the ecoregions each moth was associated with. All of the data I had indicated that Giant Leopard Moth was a species of Carolinian forests and those southward. In Ontario, the Carolinian region is restricted to the southwest, with some species also present in the Kingston region (the area of our lake house) at the east end of Lake Ontario. Our new house is most definitely not in the Carolinian zone; it straddles the St. Lawrence/Great Lakes and Southern Shield ecoregions, with a little bit of both habitats. So what was the Giant Leopard Moth doing all the way up here?

I still don’t have an answer to that. But I’m happy they’re here.

8146 - Hypercompe scribonia - Giant Leopard Moth caterpillar

When Dan brought it to me, the caterpillar was curled into itself in the typical defensive position of most tiger moth (fuzzy) caterpillars. The spines can irritate soft skin and mucus membranes, so the posture is a defense mechanism, dissuading potential predators from picking them up. Wanting to get photos, I let the caterpillar sit on my desk while I continued working, and after about five minutes it decided the threat had passed and uncurled itself. It crawled up on my hand when I placed it in its path, and I grabbed my camera to head outside.

And then the caterpillar did a funny thing: it paused in its crawling and started pinching my skin with its mandibles as if I were a leaf it wanted to chew a piece off of. Though great for ripping through leaves, the little mandibles weren’t large or strong enough to do anything; it felt as though someone was trying to lightly pinch my skin with a pair of tweezers. It tried briefly at one spot then crawled to another and tried there… I’m not sure what it was trying to accomplish. Was it really trying to feed? Or was it trying to persuade me to put it down? I didn’t keep it long, in any case. I took a few photos, then let it go at the base of a tree. It was probably on its way to find a secure nook to curl up for the winter; it’ll awake in the spring, finish feeding and pupate, and then emerge as an adult in June.

8146 - Hypercompe scribonia - Giant Leopard Moth2

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23 responses to “Giant Leopard Caterpillar

  1. What a fun encounter! Gorgeous caterpillar, and as a moth as well.

  2. I found one in Nov 26 and have been trying to learn as much as possible, I was wondering if you could help with my particular predicament.

    I live in NE Florida and the weather during Spring and Fall is very unstable – fireplace cold one day beach hot the next. I know the little bugger I found is confused and thinks its time to pupate, but its NOT! He’ll die without reproducing if he does.

    I’ve already built him a nice winter napping place so he is set for the winter. But I don’t know when to release him in Spring. Here’s the dilemma:

    1. These are VERY RARE in these parts
    2. The weather variability means lots will pupate too soon and end up freezing or not finding a mate

    I want to “thaw” him out during the period the survivors are likely to be emerging BUT I HAVE FOUND NO INFORMATION ABOUT WHEN THAT IS IN FLORIDA! “Spring” is too broad a term. This little fuzzball somehow made it into my home and escaped 4 Bully breed dogs that looooove to play with bugs and survived. He’s a fighter I wanna make sure he can have the best chance possible of finding a mate at the right time to lay surviving eggs.

    Any resources you might have would be much appreciated!
    Thanks!

    Violet

    • Hi Violet,
      Although I don’t really know your area well, I suspect your caterpillar would be fine if you simply put him back outside. He was likely looking for a spot to hole up for the winter when you found him – this species spends the winter as a caterpillar, not a pupa. Even once he does pupate, it will still take some time for the transformation to occur.
      If you’d like to keep him inside for the winter, I’d suggest putting him in a containter with a screen top or holes poked in the lid for air circulation, and then putting that container in the back of your fridge. He’ll be fine there for the next few months.
      I don’t know when spring arrives where you are, but I would suggest releasing him outside once the daily temperatures start to average 8-10°C (46-50°F). Even if the temperature drops again for a spell, these guys are hardy and he’ll be fine.
      Good luck!

    • I live in NE Florida as well and just discovered one of these ‘pillars between a couple bags of leaves I left sitting for a week or so, presumably trying to hibernate for the winter. I’m not sure if I should put it some place there’s plenty of green to munch on, or a darker, warmer place to get some rest. As there were ants crawling on it, I’m concerned it might end up lunch.

  3. I live near Gulf Breeze, Florida and I photographed a Giant Leopard moth on April 4, 2010. I also found a Giant Leopard caterpillar outside my house on June 6, 2010. I don’t know if this helps but I haven’t seen more detailed information.

  4. Their lifespan once they emerge is so short! I really wish I knew the breeding pattern specific to NE Florida/SE Georgia area. I’m pretty sure the species goes through 2 generations around warmer climates, so I’m thinking my best bet is to just place him/her outdoors within the home I’ve made in April and keep him/her overwintered until then. Hopefully nature will take its course in a positive direction.

    Violet

  5. I found one yesterday. I caught it and saved it to show my 4 year old daughter. After she kept it for a couple of hours, we let it go beside our house where there is foliage. 30 minutes later, it was back at our cat food bowls and water. Then, I put him in our flower garden in the front. After an hour or so, he is back at the cat food bowls again! I replaced him once more, and he is back once again. I guess he knows what he’s doing. Going to let him stay there. Thanks for the info and photos!

  6. Hi! I just found one of these beautiful caterpillars in my backyard. I find it odd though since its fall and many people report finding them in the springtime. I really don’t know a lot about them but am eager to find out more. I know it may be a stupid question, but should i give it some water? My little sister is very excited about it and I want to help her take care of it so it may grow into a beautiful moth. I would appreciate any help or knowledge anyone could give me on these caterpillar. I also put him in a pop open butterfly mesh display cage and put some wood, sticks and leaves. I’m not sure what he will eat, but i gave him some of the leaves he was on. Thank you!

  7. Hello! I had at my house an abundance of caterpillars starting around late Feb until mid April. There were literally hundreds of them around. And because I have arachnophobia and we have things around the house like black widows, i spray poison once a year around the perimeter of the house. after i did that I started moving the caterpillars to a habitat I created for them in an aquarium. I have about 30 of them now, and was feeding them till about a week ago just fine. But now, it is almost impossible to find any food for them. Is it safe to put them in the refrigerator to try to get them to pupate? And if that is okay, once they are in that stage, do I leave them in the refrigerator till they emerge? Thank u.

  8. hi I was wondering if the tiger moth is poisionous

  9. I found one of these moths hanging on to the inside of one of my nylon trash bins. Half of one of the wings was chewed off. I captured it and placed it on a dowl I use for storage in my garage. Its still alive after 3 days and I believe it has laid eggs on the dowl. It seems like it is on its way out. Found it laying on its back. I put it on a stick and placed it in a glass. I have pics if any one is interested. I live in St Petersburg

  10. Hello,
    I live in Rhode Island , I found one of these in my walkway on October 13th, all curled up, intrigued, I picked it up and took a couple of pictures…I had never seen one before and thought it was dead ,being so late in the season…left for the day and when I returned…it was gone..it was a beauty..

  11. I’ve seen one of these little guys also! Their like big woolly bears, but black with red bands around them. But mine unfortunately refuses to eat any leaves. And I’m not to sure how to give it water. Do they drink water, and do they even eat leaves? If you find out let me know ASAP please! Im a kid who loves nature so id love to see the life cycle of this creature, it seems really interesting! :D

  12. does anyone know if their poisonous? Because when I hear of poisonous creatures defending themselves, they use bright colors of reds, yellows, blues, etc. to scare off predators so i was wondering if they did that to?

  13. Write more, thats all I have to say. Literally, it seems as though you relied on
    the video to make your point. You clearly know what
    youre talking about, why throw away your intelligence on just posting videos to your
    site when you could be giving us something informative to
    read?

  14. angela calzoncint

    I found one in my moms garden and i brought it to school for a project im planning to keep it so i can see how it transforms into a moth

  15. Dear Seabrooke – What an amazing human being you seem to be – and I mean that as a sincere compliment. I live outside of Dallas, Texas and was honored to find one of these beauties in my violets. Today she emerged from her ‘cocoon’ (they are yellowish-semi-transparent) and I can’t decide what to do for her. Is this the time we simply say goodbye and release her? Being nocturnal, I want to do so at night, however, it’s storming here and I’d like to try tomorrow night. Does she have immediate needs (food? I’ve misted her with water) or will she be O.K. until then? She put some teeny tiny eggs (??) on the top screen of her habitat and I’m wondering if I should collect them after release and how to accommodate them. FYI, I found in my swimming pool an elephant moth caterpillar, now in a cocoon. How on earth did one of these guys get to Dallas?? Very loving little guy. Any help on moth would be so appreciated. J.J. from Texas

  16. My son and I just found one in some foliage in our yard. We live in upstate New York. I’ve never seen one before. What a beautiful caterpillar. I hope we’re lucky enough to see it’s beauty as a moth in the Spring in our yard.

  17. We (me and my 2 daughters) raised a caterpillar ( spiny black woolly bear). It hatched with no problems after being fed fresh leaves everyday. Now he sits in his enclosure and I am sad to learn it does not eat anything and will not mate either and will die soon. We picked him up in middle October and now it is Thanksgiving time. There is no way I can release such beautiful moth outside. She will die frozen to death here in Ohio. in 2 days will be December. We even have snow already.

  18. I have 2 giant leopard moth catapillars I found at school. I want to leave the lid off until they pupate. Is that ok? They seem to like celery and lettuce. They are interesting to watch. I’ll take them back to school when they fly.

  19. Im in Northwest Indiana and today there were at least 80 of these Giant Leopard Moths on my screen over my garage door. Really random now that i know they really aren’t indigenous aroubd here. Got some really beautiful pictures though.

  20. I was just removing some scrub grass from a small patch near my garden behind my condo, shaded this time of year except about 1 hour, and found a beautiful one of these huddled in the thatch. I’m in NW New Jersey (USA) and found your picture of exactly my new friend :). Now that I know who he is, I will release him in the woodlands nearby – so he doesn’t end up mashed by the thatcher when the landscapers come through soon.

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