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Smoker’s breath saves caterpillars’ lives

Tobacco-nibbling larvae exhale nicotine in face of predatory spiders

NICOTINE DEFENSE  Tobacco hornworm caterpillars use some of the nicotine in their food to produce a smoker’s breath strong enough to drive away predatory wolf spiders. 

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Eating wild tobacco plants produces such noxious breath in hornworm caterpillars that predators reel backward and flee upon encountering it.

“I think it’s actually the first example of using bad breath as a defense, although I’m sure that everybody has had a personal encounter of something similar,” says Ian Baldwin of the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena, Germany.

As a plant defense, nicotine works by poisoning a variety of creatures. But the plump, striped tobacco hornworm caterpillar (Manduca sexta) can repurpose the poison to generate “toxic halitosis,” Baldwin says.  

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