It is probably best not to touch or pick up this caterpillar. Information about its stinging capability is difficult to find, so err on the side of caution because a variety of Tussock moths are known to have urticating hairs that burn and sting. This species has tufts, or tussocks, of hair on the 'back' that may be black or gray. That area of the body seems to bulge out because the hairs are so densely packed. White, bristly hairs extend out from the whole body with thicker, black hairs scattered among them. Some individuals also have orange hairs or spots by the 'spine'. The head may be black or orange, and it is collared by long, black pencil lashes that point up and forward at an angle. A similar set of black lashes jut out from the rear end as well.
The main food source for this species is oak leaves, but it can feed on other types of deciduous trees, too. It is typically active from mid-spring to the middle of summer. It uses its own hairs and silk to build a cocoon when it is ready to pupate. These woolly balls can be found on the bottom of leaves and other surfaces.
The caterpillar becomes a Southern Tussock Moth, a brown and tan moth with very hairy legs. The moth also has dark and round tussocks that sit on its tan body. Those tight clusters of colorful hairs could almost be mistaken for small bugs hitching a piggy-back ride.
The map above showcases (in blue) the states and territories of North America where the Southern Tussock Moth Caterpillar may be found (but is not limited to). This sort of data can be useful in seeing concentrations of a particular species over the continent as well as revealing possible migratory patterns over a species' given lifespan. Some species are naturally confined by environment, weather, mating habits, food resources and the like while others see widespread expansion across most, or all, of North America.*NOTE: States/Territories shown above are a general indicator of areas inhabited by the Southern Tussock Moth Caterpillar. Insects generally go where they please, typically driven by diet, environmental changes, and / or mating habits.