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Caterpillars UPSC NOTE

 New scientific discovery

  • Caterpillars have a sixth sense that most land-based animals do not. 

  • They can sense electric fields around them with small bristles called setae on its body — a feat called electroreception

  • British researchers have discovered this in laboratory experiments and their findings were published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 

  • They studied four species of caterpillars: cinnabar moth, scarce vapourer moth, European peacock butterfly, and common wasp.

Ability to sense electric fields using tiny hairs on their bodies

  • As an insect’s wings flap through the air, static charges build up on them

  • When it nears the caterpillar, the setae sense these charges by building up charges of its own

  • This mutual interaction gives rise to an oscillating electric field.

How it helps it from predators 

  • In the study, researchers stimulated caterpillars with a live electrode carrying a voltage oscillating at 180 Hz, to mimic an approaching wasp

  • The caterpillars’ setae responded to frequencies of 50-350 Hz, possibly to help distinguish between threats and non-threats

  • The setae vibrated the most when the field frequency was 220.3 Hz — close to the rate at which many predator insects flap their wings. 

  • Caterpillars could have evolved to tune to their predator’s wingbeats. 

  • These animals have had a lot of evolutionary pressure upon them to evolve defences because so many animals like to eat them.

  • Caterpillars don’t rely on electroreception alone to sense predators

  • It supplements the other five senses

  • Sensory pollution” could damp the caterpillars’ electroreception. 

  • The setae are sensitive to voltage frequencies also present in overhead power cables, around 50-60 Hz. 

  • This ‘exposure’ could desensitise the setae and diminish the caterpillars’ ability to spot predators with them.


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