The puss caterpillar has venomous spines across its fur coat that can "cause a painful reaction if touched," according to officials

puss caterpillar
A puss caterpillar
| Credit: Virginia Department of Forestry

If you thought 2020 couldn't get any stranger, think again.

The Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) announced in a Facebook post on Tuesday that its forest health team had received reports about puss caterpillar sightings throughout several eastern counties in the state.

Though it is a caterpillar, the creature is far from your typical one, as it has a "hairy" coat that consists of "venomous spines that cause a painful reaction if touched," the VDOF explained.

Because the poison is hidden in its spines, the puss caterpillar — which is also known as a woolly slug — is considered the most poisonous caterpillar in the United States, according to the University of Michigan.

Those who come in contact with the furry creature may experience immediate and intense pain, a swollen, itchy rash, anxiety, restlessness, nausea, vomiting, fever, muscle cramps, swollen glands and symptoms of shock, the university reported.

Varying in size from 1.2 to 1.4 inches, the caterpillar is often found in southern states but has also been spotted in Texas, Maryland and Missouri, according to the University of Michigan.

While it's unclear why the creature has made so many appearances in Virginia, Theresa Dellinger, a diagnostician at the Insect Identification Lab at Virginia Tech, told CNN that she believes the reason is due to climate change.

"With changes in our climate, we're seeing some insects change their population," Dellinger explained. "But it's too soon to tell. Caterpillars, moths and butterflies all have cyclical periods, it's all about the right time, and the right conditions."

Though the puss caterpillar primarily eats oak and elm leaves, the VDOF said it has most recently been spotted in parks or near structures, and urged residents to stay away.

"If you find the caterpillar, leave it alone and let its natural enemies control their populations— there are a number of other insects that will prey on them at different stages of their life cycle," the VDOF wrote in its Facebook post.

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In the event that you come into contact with the creature, University of Michigan officials advise that you remove the broken-off spines with cellophane tape or a commercial facial peel and then call a doctor.

Dellinger also suggested to CNN that those exposed to the caterpillar's spines treat the poisonous encounter like a bee sting. This includes cleaning the area with soap and water, applying ice, and if needed, taking aspirin to relieve the pain.

"If someone is susceptible to bee stings, treat it like one," Dellinger said. "Go ahead and seek medical treatment, if you have had bad reactions to other insects in the past."