a catterpillar

Public Library of Science/Wikimedia Commons

A plant’s defense mechanism drives this caterpillar to cannibalism

Desperate times call for desperate measures for beet armyworm caterpillars that eat each other for sustenance when their preferred food source becomes inedible, The Scientist reports. When plants are threatened by animals, they can release chemicals to make their leaves less tasty, nutritious, or even toxic. Scientists sprayed tomato plants with a solution to induce this response and placed the hungry caterpillars on the plants’ leaves. They found that caterpillars resorted to cannibalism more often when they were put on plants that produced more of these defensive chemicals, the study published in Nature Ecology & Evolution reports.  Caterpillars that engaged in cannibalism were less likely to eat as much plant matter, and these plants lost less foliage as a result. 

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