Cochise County Insects: The Salt Marsh Caterpillar, Estigmene Acrea

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The first thing to remember about Estigmene acrea,the salt marsh caterpillar (whether spotted in Cochise County or elsewhere) is that they’re not poisonous. My stepson, who’s lived in this area his entire life, informed me they were poisonous, which left me a tad confused. After all, I picked up lots of these “woolly bear” caterpillars when I was a kid in Montana and never got dinged for my audacity.

On the other hand, Zach generally knows his stuff when it comes to the southern Arizona desert…and plenty of critters out this way are quite venomous indeed.

A number of pretty authoritative websites assure me they’re safe, though. Unless you’re a plant; these guys are pretty voracious eaters, the larval form of a white winged moth (with black spots). The adult moths don’t live long–mere days in the case of the females–so they’re not the issue. It’s the caterpillars who do all the munching and crunching.

The older the caterpillar, the darker it gets, which means the one shown in the next photo must be about ready to pupate. I haven’t been paying much attention to the vegetation except to stay away from it as much as possible during chigger season, but this little woolly guy (or gal) was spotted toodling over a patch of open ground between mesquite trees and countless other plants.

It didn’t like the flavor of the plant in the photo. Took one quick nibble, went -yuck!- and headed on into the bunch grass to find tastier vittles.

Picky caterpillars. Who knew?

The Salt Marsh caterpillar didn't care for the taste of this plant, just took one nibble and then moved right along.

The Salt Marsh caterpillar didn’t care for the taste of this plant, just took one nibble and then moved right along.

A couple of days after this dark colored Salt Marsh caterpillar showed up, Zach and I happened to be eyeballing the flood damaged to the road across the wash on Paloma Trail. No vegetation there, but that didn’t matter. Along came a couple of Salt Marsh caterpillars, heading right on up the bare dirt road as if they owned it.

That was when Zach informed me they were poisonous. I was glad to find out otherwise; we’ve got enough little critters around here who punch way above their weight class.

I still won’t pick them up, though. I’m hardly a kid these days, why take chances, and besides, I no longer care to interfere with the wee beasties as they’re going about their business of making a living.

Curiously, one of the Estigmene acrea decided to climb straight up the cut bank, which was just as vertical as it looks in the picture.

This Estigmene acrea (Salt Marsh caterpillar) chose to climb straight up the cut bank.

This Estigmene acrea (Salt Marsh caterpillar) chose to climb straight up the cut bank.

Naturally, I just had to circle around to see if I could get a shot of the caterpillar coming right at the camera.

I simply had to circle around to see if I could get a shot of the climbing caterpillar facing the camera.

I simply had to circle around to see if I could get a shot of the climbing caterpillar facing the camera.

One more side view of the climbing Salt Marsh caterpillar.

One more side view of the climbing Salt Marsh caterpillar.

These caterpillars are considered to be pretty serious agricultural and garden pests, capable of doing a lot of crop damage. Out here in the boonies, though, where the desert continually proves itself capable of taking care of itself, their numbers don’t appear to be high enough to worry about.

Instead, we’re simply enjoying them, one more species identified in this area of abundant wildlife.

2 thoughts on “Cochise County Insects: The Salt Marsh Caterpillar, Estigmene Acrea

  1. The caterpillar in the first shot indeed looks like it’s saying “yuck”. Too funny.

    When I was a little girl in California, we had black fuzzy caterpillars. I have no idea what they were, but I’d collect the by the bucketfuls. What I did with them after that, I don’t remember. I just have vivid memories of filling buckets with the black fuzzies.

  2. It does look indeed look like it’s saying “yuck”.

    Buckets full of them? Wow. I’ve never seen that many of any one sort of caterpillar in any one place at one time–except for the hated tent caterpillars who mass-attacked our beloved choke cherry trees and had to be burned out.

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