Caterpillars are among the fascinating creatures that we can find in our backyard. These insects come in various shapes and sizes, with some brightly colored and others dull brown or green. They can be long, short, fat, or skinny, and can even imitate things like bird poop and dried leaves. There are over 100 different species of caterpillars in North America. It may be challenging to track them all, but we’ve compiled a list of the most common ones in this article to help you learn more about them.
16 Types of caterpillars in North America
1. Monarch caterpillar
Scientific Name: Danaus plexippus
The caterpillar of the monarch butterfly is one of the most common larvae in North America. Its body is black with white and yellow stripes.
The larval stage of this species’ life cycle is spent eating milkweed plants. They can grow to be 2 inches long, but because of their colorful bands, they are easy to spot in their natural habitat.
They can be found in areas where milkweed plants naturally grow or where people have planted them. This can include areas like marshes, pastures, and deserted roadsides.
2. Viceroy caterpillar
Scientific Name: Limenitis archippus
Viceroy, one of the admiral butterflies found in North America, can be found from eastern Canada to Mexico. It inhabits meadows, marshes, swamps, and other wet areas, where they feed on willow, aspen, and poplar trees.
The larvae are white, brown, black, or olive green in color and have the appearance of bird droppings when resting on leaves or stems. In fact, this mimicry protects them from predators like birds, who would rather eat something that looks like poop than a tasty caterpillar.
3. Woolly bear
Scientific Name: Pyrrharctia isabella
The woolly bear caterpillar is a type of insect in the tiger moth family. This caterpillar is native to North America, including Canada, the United States, and Mexico.
The woolly bear is distinguished by its furry appearance and orange to brown coloring. It’s also covered in hair, which helps to keep predators at bay.
The woolly bear’s head and rear end are black, with a rusty brown to orange middle section. During their larval stage, they can be found in areas where their host plants are abundant and feed on plants and trees such as elm trees, sunflowers, asters, and clovers.
4. Monkey slug
Scientific Name: Phobetron pithecium
The caterpillar known as the “monkey slug” is a hag moth larva with a unique appearance. The larvae are brown in color and have the appearance of a hairy spider.
They also have poisonous hairs that, when touched, can cause a burning sensation. This enables the caterpillar to avoid predators and grow into adult moths.
They can be found in deciduous forests, orchards, and other areas, where they consume trees, shrubs, and nonwoody plants.
Scientific Name: Pieris rapae
The cabbageworm is a caterpillar that lives on a variety of plants, such as cabbage, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts. It’s one of the most common garden caterpillars.
It has a yellowish-green body with short hairs all over it. This species is widespread throughout the United States and southern Canada. As it matures, it turns into a cabbage-white butterfly with a wingspan of about 1.3 to 1.9 inches.
Scientific Name: Euptoieta claudia
Pansyworms are the larvae of the variegated fritillary butterfly. It’s also one of the most common spiny caterpillars in North America. The body of this species is orange with black stripes and white spots.
This species also have spines lined in its stripes. The spiny appearance helps it avoid predators but isn’t poisonous when touched. It prefers open areas with host plants such as passionflowers and violets, such as fields and meadows.
7. Pearl crescent caterpillar
Scientific Name: Phyciodes tharos
The pearl crescent caterpillar can be found all over North America, from Florida to Canada and westward into Mexico, where they live in pastures, road edges, vacant lots, fields, and open pine woods.
The body of this larva is brownish-black with yellowish stripes on the sides and is covered in black and yellow spines. They feed on aster plants for the majority of their larval stage before emerging from their cocoons to mate and lay eggs for the next generation.
8. Western tiger swallowtail caterpillar
Scientific Name: Papilio rutulus
The color of western tiger swallowtail caterpillars ranges from green to bright red, with blue and yellow eyespots. You can find these caterpillars near rivers, lakes, and streams, as well as in gardens, parks, canyons, and meadows. They eat various plants, including aspens, wild cherry, and cottonwood trees.
The adult butterfly is also quite colorful, with yellow and black wings. These butterflies can reach a wingspan of 3-4 inches and can be seen drinking minerals from mud.
9. Curve-lined owlet moth caterpillar
Scientific Name: Phyprosopus callitrichoides
Curve-lined owlet moth caterpillars have an unusual appearance. These caterpillars disguise themselves as dried leaves hanging on a plant as a form of self-defense. Their bodies are distinct from that of other caterpillars.
They have broken and bent bodies that are brown or green in color. White markings can also be seen on their body, giving them the appearance of a dried leaf.
This species is found throughout North America, from New Hampshire to Florida and Texas, and feeds on greenbriers. You can usually find them in fields, woods, and gardens, but their amazing camouflage technique may make it difficult to spot them.
10. Gray hairstreak caterpillar
Scientific Name: Strymon melinus
You can find the gray hairstreak caterpillar in many regions of the United States and Canada. Its body is usually green, with a dark green line and short setae. This caterpillar lives in fields, gardens, croplands, and open habitats with a variety of plants from the pea and mallow families, which serve as host plants for the caterpillars.
11. Spring azure caterpillar
Scientific Name: Celastrina ladon
The spring azure larva is a small green, whitish, or brown caterpillar with short white-star-shaped setae. As larvae, they can reach a length of 1.5 cm.
Azures are common in North America, living in trees and shrubs in woodlands, forest edges, and stream banks. They enjoy eating blueberries and dogwoods, and you can find these mature caterpillars from May to September.
12. Spicebush swallowtail caterpillar
Scientific Name: Papilio troilus
The spicebush swallowtail caterpillar has two pairs of yellow eyespots on its green body. One pair of eyespots on the head has a black spot resembling a pupil. This caterpillar can reach a length of 5.5 inches.
As an adult, it can be seen in gardens, fields, woodlands, and swamps. Mature caterpillars can be seen from June to July and August to October.
13. Banded tussock caterpillar
Scientific Name: Halysidota tessellaris
The banded tussock larva is a medium-sized insect covered in yellow-brown to gray-black setae. It also has long black and white lashes on both ends of its body. When these hairs are touched, they can cause an itchy rash.
This caterpillar consumes a wide range of trees and shrubs, including birch, blueberry, chestnut, willow, and hazel. In North America, they’re primarily found in the forests and woodlands.
14. Mourning cloak caterpillar
Scientific Name: Nymphalis antiopa
The mourning cloak larva is a spiny caterpillar that can be found throughout North America, including Florida and Texas. It has a black body covered in white spots and black spines.
They have red blotches on their back as well. You can find mourning cloaks in wetlands, forest edges, yards, and city parks. The caterpillar spends most of its time eating leaves from trees such as willows and poplars, and it’s most commonly seen in June and July.
15. Milkweed tussock caterpillar
Scientific Name: Euchaetes egle
The milkweed tussock caterpillar is a fuzzy insect found in fields and open areas of North America. This hairy caterpillar comes in various colors, including white, yellow, orange, and black. On its back end, it also has a large tuft of black and white hairs.
These bright colors and hairy appearance make this species appear unappealing and dangerous to predators, allowing it to survive in the wild. They can reach a length of 3.5 cm and feed on milkweed plants.
16. Question mark caterpillar
Scientific Name: Polygonia interrogationis
The larva of the question mark butterfly is a spiny caterpillar with orange branches and black tips. The majority of their bodies are black, but they have white and orange spots all over them.
This species prefers to live in areas such as floodplains, watercourse edges, parks, and yards. They’re most commonly seen in early and late summer, feeding on elms, hops, and hackberries.