A caterpillar outwits corn defenses by gorging on fattening ‘junk’ food | Science News

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A caterpillar outwits corn defenses by gorging on fattening ‘junk’ food

The crop plants recruit zombie-maker wasps, but one pest has a desperate work-around

By
7:00am, May 22, 2018
wasp and leafworm

DESPERATE BATTLE  Eating disgusting leaves may save an Egyptian cotton leafworm (right) from the zombie-making Microplitis rufiventris wasp that a corn plant lured in with odors.

Here’s the story of a caterpillar that foils gruesome violence orchestrated by corn.

No, that’s not backward. Plants often look helpless to a human, but they fight with smells and other invisible chemistry. A growing body of evidence, for example, shows that plants under attack can waft out scents that attract help, such as tiny wasps that deal a lingering death to leaf-chewing caterpillars.

A dream for future farming is to boost such crop powers. Yet a tale, published May 16 in Science Advances, of how Spodoptera littoralis caterpillars can escape a trap set for them by maize plants shows how complex a task that could be.

These attackers are “greenish, brownish, ugly caterpillars,” says Ted Turlings of the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland, who makes no secret of where his allegiance lies. The caterpillars damage maize, cotton and a variety of other

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