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Zombie Virus Drives Caterpillars To An Explosive Death

Zombie Virus Drives Caterpillars To An Explosive Death

Halloween is just around the corner, but it seems like some members of the animal kingdom have already started playing ghoulish tricks on one another.

Scientists recently discovered something that was causing European gypsy moth caterpillars to behave very strangely. The caterpillars were infected by a deadly baculovirus, and with their last bits of strength, they did something that would be out of the question if they were healthy: they climbed out onto the very highest leaves of their tree in the middle of the day.

There, their diseased bodies split open, raining infected caterpillar guts onto the leaves and branches below. The death ritual is so bizarre, that scientists started using the term ”tree top disease” to describe the virus that caused it.

In a recent issue of Science magazine, researchers reveal the cause of this odd final act: a specific viral gene that drives infected caterpillars to die in a way that offers the best potential for spreading the virus that killed it…just like a zombie (ScienceDaily).

The virus “ends up using just about all of the caterpillar to make more virus, and there are other genes in the virus that then make the caterpillar melt. So it becomes a pool of millions of virus particles that end up dropping onto the foliage below where it can infect other moths that eat those leaves,” study co-author Kelli Hoover told National Geographic.

According to researchers, this discovery provides evidence that genetic characteristics of the host help determine a parasite’s effect on its behavior.

Because the baculovirus that causes this strange behavior only affects invertebrates, scientists think that it could be a useful tool in controlling invasive caterpillar populations like the gypsy moth.

A healthy gypsy moth caterpillar feeds at night and either hides in a tree’s bark crevices during the day or climbs down the tree to the soil to avoid predators. For the virus behind tree top disease, there is a significant advantage to a caterpillar dying in the middle of a leaf within the canopy of the tree rather than in a crevice. The dead caterpillar liquefies, releasing millions of virus particles into the environment where they can spread throughout the tree and contaminate other gypsy moth larvae. This virus is specific for the gypsy moth, and consequently will not impact any other insect, animal, or plant in the treatment area. (ScienceDaily)

The Northern Research Station and the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) are partners in producing the virus for states, the National Park Service and other agencies to use to control gypsy moths.


Related Reading:

Parasitic Fungus Turns Ants Into Zombies

Wasps Create Zombie Caterpillar [Video]

USDA Poisoned Thousands Of Wild Birds In South Dakota

via HuffPo


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Image Credit: Flickr - GollyGForce

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7:16AM PST on Dec 17, 2013

My only real question is where did this baculovirus come from initially.

4:01PM PST on Feb 20, 2013

Thank you for sharing.

7:19AM PDT on Sep 22, 2012

What if it mutates and attacks people?

8:21AM PDT on Jul 31, 2012

Nasty, looks like Nature's weapon of mass destruction for this type of caterpillar! Yes, if we mess around with it the virus could mutate and affect more beneficial insects--and even if we don't mess around virus often mutate.

4:51PM PDT on May 4, 2012

I'm sure it won't be long before someone makes an action/horror movie about this.

12:40PM PDT on May 3, 2012

Where is the video!!!

6:33AM PDT on Apr 26, 2012

@Char- I know this is super-old, but you're thinking of Eastern Tent Caterpillars. Not Gypsy moth.

7:03PM PDT on Apr 15, 2012

yea I can see it now people are reported to be climbing up trees and tall buildings where they explode!...... no lets leave science out of this and let nature do what she does best and if anything make sure this virus doesn't mutate and cross over to humans! Great now I have a strong desire to watch a zombie movie!~

1:56PM PDT on Apr 15, 2012

Gypsy moths - ugh! The caterpillers overrun us every spring, blanketing trees - especially cherry trees - in their tents. They crap all over, foul the dogs' water, you can't walk without stepping on them. I wouldn't miss them if they were gone, that's for sure. BUT. Viruses mutate. Just because this one is specific to gypsy moths doesn't mean it couldn't mutate and attack some beneficial insect larvae, or even some "ornamental" insects, like the lovely Luna moths or Monarch butterflies. Using viruses is kind of unsettling, frankly.

8:34AM PDT on Apr 15, 2012

Must... climb... higher... must...

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