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An invasive, toxic species of caterpillar has officials in the UK on edge. Authorities are now warning residents to avoid the caterpillars and their prickly, poisonous hairs that can irritate and kill.

It's time to be vigilant! Oak Processionary Moth spotted in parks across Bexley, the Royal Forestry Society tweeted last week. (Bexley is a south-east London borough.)

So far, officials have only seen nests and emerging larvae of the toxic oak processionary moth, or OPM (Thaumetopoea processionea). The larvae, aka caterpillars, arent expected to fully hatch and begin moving around and eating oak foliage until around mid-May, at which point they pose a danger to humans as well as the trees.

The caterpillars can be easily spotted by their name-sake nose-to-tail processions, but their most dangerous feature is their coat of toxic hairs. Each caterpillar has approximately 62,000 of the white bristles. The hairs are full of a toxic protein called thaumetopoein, and they can be ejected if the caterpillar feels threatened. Thus, humans can be exposed by touching the caterpillars or being brushed by shed hairs swept up in the wind.

The hairs thaumetopoein can then cause skin irritation, breathing troubles, fevers, and eye and throat irritation. In people who are allergic, the toxin can cause life-threatening reactions.

At best, you can get contact dermatitis. At worst, you can die, Jason Dombroskie, an entomologist with Cornell University, told the New York Times. You can go into anaphylactic shock and have your airways close up. The airborne hairs set up a whole different ballgame.

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