An Itchy Situation

17 10 2008

Sometimes in life you just have to say… “oops!”.  The other day I was educating some young preschool minds as to how nature prepares for the cold winter months ahead.  We were exploring the changing leaves, hibernation, migration, food gathering and of course cocoons.  I was fortunate enough to have found earlier in the day, about six little fuzzy balls behind a sign at the nature center I work at and brought them to the program.  As I was explaining how some insects hide beneath the bark of trees while others form a cocoon to sleep away the winter, I decided to pass around my recent discoveries for all to experience.  After all, I am a strong believer in hands on education.  Students learn more through experience.

Itchy little balls

Itchy little balls

If I had more time that morning I probably would have done some research on these tiny balls of fuzz and realized they were a tussock moth cocoon which comes from the weather forecaster we know as the woolly bear caterpillar.  But being rushed that morning, I didn’t know about the irritating properties of this creature until it was too late.

I think it was during the leaf rubbings that one little girl kept complaining to her mother about her hands itching.  I noticed the girls fingers were a bit red, but chalked it up to her scratching them.  After about five minutes of complaints, I started to wonder if this young girl was allergic to crayons.  That’s when Mom decided it was the cocoon.  We washed her hands to little avail and spent the rest of our time together trying to take her mind off the itching.  Another problem was that the itchiness had spread to the rest of the group.  At this point I was trying to calm everyone’s worries and ignore the fact that my own hands were a slight bit itchy.  Nothing a good walk outdoors on a cool autumn day wouldn’t cure.  I succeeded at the art of distraction and we enjoyed the rest of the morning.

The tussock moth when in its caterpillar or cocoon stage of its life cycle is covered with irritating hairs as a defense against predators.  If an animal tries to devour one of these soon-to-be moths, they will find themselves with a very irritated mouth and will try to discard the object.  In the least they will avoid trying to eat another.

As a naturalist, I am always trying to quench my thirst for knowledge of nature.  I always like to delve into nature to learn about it first hand.  I look at my little “oops!” as more of a learning experience rather than a mishap.  The children survived.  Hands went back to their proper color, and we all learned why animals leave these little guys alone.

I had a similar experience about a month ago while hiking and exploring Letchworth State Park.  I noticed a lime green caterpillar with a unique hair design clinging to the side of a tree.  Wanting to get photographs of this beautiful creature, I lifted it off the tree and moved it to a sunnier location to get better lighting for my photographs.  Upon later research, I discovered that this awesome creature was an IO moth caterpillar.  The “spines” on the caterpillar are actually filled with a poison that can cause swelling and severe reactions to it.  Luckily I wasn’t sensitive to the poison.

IO moth caterpillar

IO moth caterpillar

Nature never ceases to amaze me.  There are so many ways that animals protect themselves in the dangers of the natural world.  We forget how tough it can be out there as we snuggle in front of a warm fire on a cold winters eve.  The wild animals have evolved many unique ways to survive in the wilds.  The next time you are outdoors exploring nature, be careful, but enjoy the experiences.

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