Lonomia obliqua (or Giant Silkworm Moth, a name also used for a wide range of other Saturniid moths) is a species of Saturniid moths from South America. It is famous for its larval form, rather than the adult moth, primarily because of the caterpillar's defense mechanism, urticating bristles that inject a potentially deadly venom. The caterpillar has been responsible for several deaths, especially in southern Brazil. Its venom has also been the subject of numerous medical studies.
These caterpillars are about 4.5 to 5.5 centimetres (about 2 in) long, with background colors ranging from green to brown. Well camouflaged, they have rows of tubercles crowned with whorls of easily detachable spines of different sizes.
Caterpillars of many species can cause irritation by hollow body hairs that envenom or detach easily, or can be poisonous if ingested; however, prior to investigations into Lonomia caterpillars, it was not known that caterpillars could produce toxins which in sufficient quantities could kill a human being. Lonomia obliqua is found in the south of Brazil in the states of Rio Grande do Sul, Santa Catarina and Paraná. The species appears to be spreading to the southeast of Brazil, and recent accidents with the species were reported in the states of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais. L. obliqua is also found in Uruguay, Paraguay and Argentina. It first became internationally known when an epidemic occurred in an agrarian community in Rio Grande do Sul. Doctors were mystified when scores of patients came in with the same symptoms. Haematoma and gangrene-like symptoms manifested, spreading throughout the body, eventually causing massive blood leakage into the brain and, in several cases, death.
At first the cause could not be determined, although each victim stated they had "just handled a bunch of leafy branches to break the trail, or gather vegetation." Exploring the area, the only creature commonly found within all the incidents was the L. obliqua caterpillar. Its hair growth covers its body and each clump of spines is able to easily puncture the skin and release toxins into the victim.
According to research published in the journal Toxicon, Lonomia obliqua has a unique venom that causes disseminated intravascular coagulation and a consumptive coagulopathy, which can lead to a hemorrhagic syndrome. Study revealed that at the base of each spine was a sack where the toxins were stored. As the stems and needles penetrated the victim, venom would flow through the hollow needles and into the puncture wound.
It was also discovered that the toxin in the caterpillar's skin held potent anti-clotting agents. This anti-clotting agent would attach to another protein to the body's cells and cause them to leak as blood is unable to clot. This internal bleeding would fill the surrounding tissue with "bruised blood". This internal bleeding spreads through the internal organs and eventually leads to compression and brain death. This accounts for the minimum of 500 deaths resulting from contact with L. obliqua caterpillars. The poison only takes effect in fairly large amounts; in order to experience the extreme effects caused by the toxins, the victim would probably need to be stung at least 20 to 100 times because each sting only injects a minute amount of venom.
The genus Lonomia includes 26 species found on the American Continent. However, only Lonomia obliqua and Lonomia achelous have caused severe reactions, leading to hemorrhagic syndrome. Since 1989 the number of human accidents caused by these caterpillars has been increasing in the southern region of Brazil. Most victims were male (63%), many were between 0 and 19 years old (45%), and lesions are especially common on the hands (38%). The reported death rate is 2.5%. An antiserum is produced by the Butantan Institute in São Paulo, Brazil. It effectively reverses the coagulation disorders induced by Lonomia obliqua venom, and patients treated with this antiserum recover rapidly.
Effects of venom
Disseminated intravascular coagulation occurs as the toxin interacts with the victim's body. One serious effect on envenomed victims is hemorrhage syndrome. "First described by Arocha-Pinango and Layrisse in Venezuela in 1967, the hemorrhagic diathesis caused in humans by touching the Lonomia species begins with inflammatory changes at the site of envenoming, followed by systemic symptoms such as headache, fever, vomiting and malaise. After 24 hours, a severe bleeding disorder ensues, leading to ecchymosis, hematuria, pulmonary and intracranial hemorrhages, and acute renal failure."
Although few cases are recorded, a case study of a fatal encounter was published in Arquivos de Neuro-Psiquiatria: "A 70 year-old, previously healthy woman developed a sudden coma. Four days before, she had started to present hematuria. Shortly after admission, her coma was rated as Glasgow 3. Physical examination revealed several skin hemorrhages, and gross hematuria was present. Based on information in a note left by the patient, two small hyperemic lesions were identified on the tip of her left toe. Along with the note was the green caterpillar which was hidden inside of her slipper. CT-scan imaging revealed multiple intracerebral hemorrhages. She died seven days after being envenomed."
In another case, the internal bleeding spread throughout the lower body. While this victim did not die, prompt medical attention was necessary.
While there are many reported cases of serious injuries and fatalities, there are not many records of proper treatment should an individual be stung. Before one is able to reach professional medical care there are certain steps that can help insure a healthy recovery. It is important to clean the wound with soap and water, as well as apply a sticky adhesive to help remove the small hairs. Duct tape works well in this situation. According to Dr. Robert Norris, stings and abrasions caused by Lonomia obliqua should be treated with antifibrinolytics. If blood products are required, they must be given cautiously to avoid fueling the constant consumptive coagulapathy. There is an anti-venom produced against this particular species in Brazil.
L. obliqua caterpillar toxin has been the subject of numerous studies to determine its medical value. In particular the component called "Lopap" (L. obliqua prothrombin activator protease) has exhibited anticoagulant and anti-apoptotic qualities.
- Meyer, W.L. (1 May 1996), "Chapter 23: Most Toxic Insect Venom", Book of Insect Records, Gainsevuille, Florida: Department of Entomology & Nematology, University of Florida, retrieved 18 March 2011
- M.P. Alvarez Floresa; M. Zanninb; A.M. Chudzinski-Tavassi (2009–2010). "New Insight into the Mechanism of Lonomia obliqua Enveoming: Toxin Involvement and Molecular Approach". Pathophysiology of haemostasis and thrombosis 37 (1). doi:10.1159/000320067. ISSN 1424-8840. Retrieved 15 December 2010.
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- Kowacs, P.A.; Cardoso, J.; Entres, M.; Novak, E.; Werneck, L. (December 2006). "Fatal intracerebral hemorrhage secondary to Lonomia obliqua caterpillar envenoming: case report". Arquivos de Neuro-Psiquiatria 64 (4): 1030–2. doi:10.1590/S0004-282X2006000600029. ISSN 0004-282X. PMID 17221019.
- Robert L Norris (24 May 2010). "Caterpillar Envenomation: Treatment & Medication". eMedicine. Medscape. Retrieved 15 December 2010.
- Waismam, K.; Chudzinski-Tavassi, A.M.; Carrijo-Carvalho, L.C.; Fernandes Pacheco, M.T.; Farsky, S.H.P. (May 2009). "Lopap: A non-inflammatory and cytoprotective molecule in neutrophils and endothelial cells". Toxicon 53 (6): 652–659. doi:10.1016/j.toxicon.2009.01.031.
- Prezoto, B.C.; Maffei, F.H.A.; Mattar, L.; Chudzinski-Tavassi, A.M.; Curi, P.R. (2002). "Antithrombotic effect of Lonomia obliqua caterpillar bristle extract on experimental venous thrombosis". Brazilian Journal of Medical and Biological Research (Universidade Estadual Paulista, Instituto Butantan) 35 (6): 703–712. doi:10.1590/S0100-879X2002000600011. ISSN 1678-4510.