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Here’s Your Sign


Photo and story by: Justin Haag

Sometimes nature sends obvious signs about what a person should not touch. Cacti, yucca plants, porcupines and rattlesnakes have signals akin to a flashing billboard. Then there are more devious dangers such rash-inducing urushiol on unassuming poison ivy plants. I am not sure where the subject of the following story fits into that spectrum, but I now know I should have been paying a little closer attention to some signs.

“Ohhh, look at the fuzzy caterpillar,” my 10-year-old daughter Kiera said with excitement, as the striking yellow-green specimen with a conspicuous series of black spikes of hair on its back marched down a tree trunk at our Fort Robinson State Park campsite.

I am no entomologist, but the talent scout in me took one glance at this peculiar looking larva and knew it was destined to become a model. I let the caterpillar crawl on to my hand to keep it from escaping the scene – so focused on getting photos that I did not quite catch some words Kiera was relating to me about many caterpillars being poisonous. I detained the fuzzy creature long enough for an impromptu photo shoot.

After photos, I searched the Internet for “yellow green caterpillar with spikes.” I soon learned the American dagger moth (Acronicta americana) caterpillar has an incredible characteristic I wish I had known a few minutes earlier. It’s poisonous.

“That’s what I said!” Kiera exclaimed, as her dad stood in front of the popup camper reading excerpts from the article with a dumb look on his face. Yes, at that point I realized those spikes on the caterpillar’s back, and the words from my daughter, might have been trying to tell me something.

Remarkably, the hairs of the dagger moth caterpillar are hollow and contain toxins that cause a reaction on a person’s skin when they break off. It is more of a delayed thing like poison ivy than an instant sting like a bee or wasp, so there is no immediate deterrent to keep a person from handling the caterpillar.

Oh, but I figured I was in the clear because I was careful to not mess up the caterpillar’s hair for its big-time photo shoot. No petting, no coddling, just a hike up and down my arm.

It was not long, however, until the itching commenced and a little red rash appeared on my index finger at the point the caterpillar climbed aboard. Nothing major, for sure, but an annoyance.

I know what you are thinking; it serves me right. One should always be careful handling things they do not know about regardless of how fuzzy they appear or how cool the photos will look.

A little later, after our attention had turned from the caterpillar to other campsite business, a brutal scene caught my attention from the corner of my eye. A ferocious predator to the insect world, a Turdus migratorius

(commonly known as the American robin) was mercilessly pecking away at the same caterpillar that had just been the subject of my photos. Whether or not that bird had a nasty case of heartburn later, I do not know. Maybe my daughter knows.

I guess that caterpillar, similar to me, had to learn a lesson the hard way that day: It’s a jungle out there.  ■

You can listen to Justin’s weekly show, Panhandle Afield, on Soundcloud.

About Justin Haag

Justin Haag has served the Commission as a public information officer in the Panhandle since 2013. His duties include serving as regional editor for NEBRASKAland Magazine. Haag was raised in southwestern Nebraska, where he developed a love for fishing, hunting and other outdoor pursuits. After earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Chadron State College in 1996, he worked four years as an editor and reporter at newspapers in Chadron and McCook. Prior to joining the Commission in 2013, he worked 12 years as a communicator at Chadron State, serving as the institution’s media and public relations coordinator the last five. He and his wife, Cricket, live in Chadron, and have two children.

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