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Sci Rep. 2016 Aug 11;6:31469. doi: 10.1038/srep31469.

A Comparative Analysis of Sonic Defences in Bombycoidea Caterpillars.

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Department of Biology, Carleton University, 1125 Colonel By Drive, Ottawa, Ontario, K1S 5B6, Canada.
Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida, 32611, USA.


Caterpillars have long been used as models for studying animal defence. Their impressive armour, including flamboyant warning colours, poisonous spines, irritating sprays, and mimicry of plant parts, snakes and bird droppings, has been extensively documented. But research has mainly focused on visual and chemical displays. Here we show that some caterpillars also exhibit sonic displays. During simulated attacks, 45% of 38 genera and 33% of 61 species of silk and hawkmoth caterpillars (Bombycoidea) produced sounds. Sonic caterpillars are found in many distantly-related groups of Bombycoidea, and have evolved four distinct sound types- clicks, chirps, whistles and vocalizations. We propose that different sounds convey different messages, with some designed to warn of a chemical defence and others, to startle predators. This research underscores the importance of exploring acoustic communication in juvenile insects, and provides a model system to explore how different signals have evolved to frighten, warn or even trick predators.

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