Caterpillars make noise to fend off intruders, researchers discover

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. Caterpillars defend their homes by drumming up vibrations with their mandibles to drive intruders away, scientists say. At times, the nest-owner and intruder engage in duels that create a symphony of drum-like sounds.

These sounds made by caterpillars in this case the common hook-tip moth (Drepana arcuata) were not new to scientists. As a specific behavioral activity, however, this was unheard of, said Patrick J. Weatherhead, a professor of animal biology at the University of Illinois. When this was called to my attention, it appeared to be similar to a vertebrate model of territoriality. We didnt anticipate that such a behavior occurred in organisms such as these.

The research appeared Sept. 25 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. (Three audio-video clips are at www.pnas.org/cgi/content/full/191378898/DC1.) Co-authors were Jayne E. Yack and Myron L. Smith, biologists at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, and Weatherhead.

Yack, the lead author, initiated the study after investigating a tapping sound coming from where she was raising larvae in her home late one night. She had found that the sound was coming from two caterpillars on the same leaf, raising a question as to the purpose of the sound.

In the laboratory, the researchers conducted 53 trials in which they placed a second caterpillar onto an already occupied leaf where a nest of silk had been constructed by the resident to protect it while it ate. The intruding caterpillar approached the resident, who stopped feeding, backed into its nest and began signaling by dragging or striking its mandibles against the leaf. Three distinct signals of engagement ensued. These interactions were recorded and the involved body parts were identified.

Resident caterpillars turned away the intruder in 87 percent of the tests, usually within one to five minutes. Intruders

Contact: Jim Barlow
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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