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Tobacco tricks caterpillars with treats

Eating tempting hairs on leaves can lead to larvae's demise

WASHINGTON — Even caterpillars shouldn’t take candy from strangers. Tasty little hairs growing on wild tobacco plants amount to “evil lollipops” that make caterpillars who eat them more likely to be eaten themselves, a researcher says.

Hawkmoth caterpillars (Manduca sexta) readily eat the hairs, reports Ian Baldwin of the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena, Germany. But consuming them changes the odor of the caterpillars’ bodies and excretions, Baldwin said February 21 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In experiments, he and his colleagues observed that the odor change makes the caterpillars more likely to become lollipops themselves for ants and other predators.

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