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The Green Life: A Musical Caterpillar?

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December 20, 2010

A Musical Caterpillar?

Caterpillar Next time you're walking in nature and you hear a whistling sound coming from the leaves, don't be overly flattered. Chances are it's a walnut sphinx caterpillar, which has been found to be able to make music to ward off bird attacks.

A team of researchers hoped to understand how the critter managed to do it, so they covered each pair of the caterpillar's eight sets of breathing holes with latex. Using high-speed video, they found that when the caterpillar senses a threat and contracts its body, if forces air through the eighth set of holes to produce the noise, which can last up to four seconds.

Yellow warblers and other birds sharing the caterpillar's habitat are startled by the unusual form of communication. But Jayne Yack, a neuroethologist from Canada's Carleton University, doesn't blame them: "If you put yourself in the bird's place, you have limited foraging time," she said. "You're hunting around the foliage and you find something cryptic, you attack it and then it goes 'wee,' I can guarantee you'd abandon it and start looking for something else."

--Molly Oleson

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