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Imposter Caterpillars

March 10, 2009

A species of caterpillar tricks ants into treating it better than its own young.


A caterpillar’s clever con game. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Some fish, birds, and bugs trick other species into raising their young. Now, scientists have figured out how a European caterpillar takes this a step further: They invade ant colonies, and get treated even better than the actual ant larvae. Oxford University ecologist Jeremy Thomas says this is especially clear when food runs short.

JEREMY THOMAS (University of Oxford):
So you actually get the bizarre situation of the ants cutting up their own small ant grubs and feeding them to these caterpillars.

Using tiny microphones and speakers, Thomas and his colleagues discovered that the caterpillars make sounds with their abdomens that mimic those of a queen ant. When the scientists played back recordings of caterpillars to worker ants, the ants showed protective behavior normally reserved for guarding the queen. I’m Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the Science Society.