Meet the Automeris illustris, the most recent resident discovered in the garden of the Casa Rosa. This impressive caterpillar was hidden in an overgrown vine that Rico and I were trying to remove from the Pitanga tree in the front of the yard. We were up on the first floor veranda, level with the top of the vine-strangled branches, yanking out handfulls of unwanted foliage. Suddenly, Rico pulled back his hand and cursed, thinking a splinter had entered his finger. He inspected his hand, found nothing, and went back for another handful of vine. He buried his hand in the tangle of green leaves, then immediately jumped away, screaming in pain. "That thing stung me," he managed to say.
I looked down and saw the most horrific, shiver-inducing caterpillar I've ever laid eyes on in my life. It was nearly 3 inches long and covered in neon green fern-like spines. "Wash your hand with soap," I shouted to Rico, who was already in the bathroom and still screaming in pain. I ran to the kitchen and tore open a box of milk, then filled a plastic cup for Rico to submerge the affected are in. The milk helped somewhat, but he still had serious nettling in his fingers. We called Rico's uncle, who is a doctor, and he gave us the magic solution: urine. Rico peed on his hand, and the burning finally stopped. His hand was red and a bit swollen, with white spots where the poison had contacted his skin.
To be safe, we decided to put the caterpillar in a jar so that we could take it to the clinic if Rico symptoms worsened. There were several cases of fatal caterpillar stings in Santa Catarina state some time back, and we didn't want to take any chances. Rico broke off a branch to nudge the caterpillar into the jar, and we were equal parts fascinated and creeped out when the beast clung to the branch and started emitting shock-like static noises. We put the caterpillar in the jar, plant material and all, and sat observing it, completely transfixed, for several minutes, trying to ignore our crawling skin.For good measure, we took photos (prior to putting the thing in the jar).
Nature's way of saying "Don't Touch" For a bit of perspective, Rico's shoe is a size 40 (Brazil), 8.5 (US).
Of course, I spent 40 minutes trying to identify the caterpillar on the internet. I find it nearly impossible to stop thinking about un-named things I encouter - snakes, trees, rocks, etc. - and was going crazy with no Google access for most of the day (no signal up in Santa on the iPhone). Now we are at my brother-in-law's house, and I've finally satisfied my curiosity, and provided a great show-and-tell for the fam.
Thankfully Rico is okay, and has suddenly become - que surpresa - an avid promoter of gardening gloves, no matter how harmless the situation may seem.