Airmobile brigade

Hovering guards of bee colony position themselves orderly

Hovering guards defend the nest of Tetragonisca angustula

It is difficult for a robber bee to stealthy approach a colony of the stingless bee Tetragonisca angustula, because hovering guards will detect it. These guards arrange themselves in an organized manner, Kyle Shackleton and colleagues show.

Workers of the stingless bee Tetragonisca angustula defend their colony extraordinary well against their enemies. Some workers are dedicated guards; they are heavier than other workers and have longer legs. Such specialised soldier caste is not known in other bee species. And while during the day always guards are standing in or near the nest entrance, there are often also some hovering in front of it to keep an eye on the access route, especially in the afternoon. Such an airmobile brigade is unique too.


The most important enemy is the robber bee Lestrimelitta limao. Robber bee workers do not collect nectar and pollen from flowers themselves, but get it from colonies of other species. They also steal food that is prepared for the larvae and nest constructing material. Tetragonisca angustula, with its large colonies, is vulnerable. No wonder, then, that there are guards that keep an eye on what is near the nest. It is important to deal with an approaching single robber bee at once, because it is a scout. It will recruit hundreds of others for a raid that will last for hours or days.

As more hovering guards are active, such a flying intruder is detected earlier and intercepted at a greater distance from the nest. The guards recognize the robber bee from its odour and colour; it is black and smells like lemon. The guards wrestle it to the ground by clamping to an antenna or wing. They are not able to kill it, because it is three times heavier than a they are. But they may stop it.

Maximal field of view

Often only a few hovering guards are hanging in front of the nest. Kyle Shackleton and colleagues now show that these guards do not choose their position randomly, but in a coordinated way. If two guards  are hovering, there will usually be one on the left and one of the right side of the access route to the nest. In case of three guards, it rarely occurs that all of them hover at the same side. And four guards mostly are distributed evenly; sometimes sometimes three guards hover at the one side and one at the other side, and it hardly happens that all four guards are at the same side. Because of this coordinated distribution, the hovering guards have a maximal field of view and they will discover an approaching flying enemy as fast as possible.

In case of immediate danger, more guards will be hovering in front of the nest. An even distribution between left and right is less important in that case, because together they will have a good view anyway. There is no surveillance at night, for in the evening the bees close the nest entrance with wax.

Willy van Strien

A Tetragonisca angustula hovering guard bee next to a nest-entrance. Bibafu (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

Shackleton, K., D.A. Alves & F.L.W. Ratnieks, 2018. Organization enhances collective vigilance in the hovering guards of Tetragonisca angustula bees. Behavioral Ecology 29: 1105-1112. Doi: 10.1093/beheco/ary086
Grüter, C., C. Menezes, V.L. Imperatriz-Fonseca & F.L.W. Ratnieks, 2012. A morphologically specialized soldier caste improves colony defense in a neotropical eusocial bee. PNAS 109: 1182-1186. Doi: 10.1073/pnas.1113398109
Grüter, C., M.H. Kärcher & F.L.W. Ratnieks, 2011. The natural history of nest defence in a stinngless bee, Tetragonisca angustula (Latreille) (Hymenoptera: Apidae), with two distinct types of entrance guards. Neotropical Entomology 40: 55-61. Doi: 10.1590/S1519-566X2011000100008
Van Zweden, J.S., C. Grüter, S.M. Jones & F.L.W. Ratnieks, 2011. Hovering guards of the stingless bee Tetragonisca angustula increase colony defensive perimeter as shown by intra- and inter-specific comparisons. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 65: 1277-1282. Doi: 10.1007/s00265-011-1141-2

Swirling lights

Scale worm deceives its enemy by detaching glowing scales

Scale worm emits light to escape from predator

If the fifteen-scaled worm is attacked by a lobster, green lights appear in the water. They are scales and tail segments that the worm released to escape, as Julia Livermore and colleagues show.

It is a cheerful sight: animals that emit light, such as fireflies. In marine habitats, this sight is much more common than on land, because most light artists live in dark water. They use their light to defend themselves against predators or to lure prey, or they perform a light show to seduce a partner.

The fifteen-scaled worm, Harmothoe imbricata, uses its light for defence, Julia Livermore and colleagues write. The worm, three to six centimetres in length, occurs everywhere on the northern hemisphere, from the inter-tidal zone to a depth of a few kilometres. On its back it carries fifteen pairs of disc-shaped scales for protection, which flash green light when the worm is irritated. It can also detach the scales, upon which they float through the water as little lights for some time. If it is in great danger, it also releases its posterior body segments, which then also emit light.


The researchers show how this behaviour enables the worm to actually escape from its predators, crabs and lobsters. They brought worms into the lab and conducted experiments in which they exposed a worm to the American lobster, Homarus americanus, or the green shore crab, Carcinus maenas; a refuge for the worm to hide was provided.

If an enemy approaches, a worm sometimes tries to slowly swim away unseen. If that fails, its scales will flash and / or the worm detaches scales and sometimes also segments of its tail, which then emit light. Because of the movements of the animals, the parts will swirl in the water. The predator is deceived: it goes after the lights and grabs them – and it will eat the dropped scales and tail segments.

In the meantime, the worm gets a chance to safely escape, as it turns out. Especially when it drops tail segments, its chance of survival is high. The swirling lights therefore function as an effective defence, but also an expensive one: the worm sacrifices protective scales and sometimes also a piece of its tail. That will regenerate, but it takes a while: a few days for the scales, a few weeks for the tail. But the sacrifice may save its life.

Willy van Strien

Photo: Harmothoe impar, a scale worm that is closely related to Harmorhoe imbricata. Saxifraga-Eric Gibcus

The researchers filmed experiments with a crab predator

A flashlight fish uses light to lure prey

Livermore, J., T. Perreault & T. Rivers, 2018. Luminescent defensive behaviors or polynoid polychaete worms to natural predators. Marine Biology 165: 149. Doi: 10.1007 / s00227-018-3403-2
Verdes, A. & D.F. Gruber, 2017. Glowing worms: biological, chemical, functional diversity or bioluminescent Annelids. Integrative and Comparative Biology 57: 18-32. Doi: 10.1093 / icb / icx017
Plyuscheva, M. & D. Martin, 2009. On the morphology of elytra as luminescent organs in scale worms (Polychaeta, Polynoidae). Zoosymposia 2: 379-389. Doi: 10.11646 / zoosymposia.2.1.26


When under attack, skink exposes its entire blue tongue

Blue-tongued skink deters attack by protruding its blue tongue

As their name indicates, blue-tongued skinks possess a blue tongue. The lizards sometimes protrude it to show the striking colour. Arnaud Badiane and colleagues explain why.

The blue-tongued skinks from Australia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea have a cryptic colour which protects them from hunting predators. But sometimes, they suddenly expose their large tongue, which catches the eye because of a striking blue colour. This behaviour seems odd, as it reveals the animals’ presence after all.

Now, Arnaud Badiane and colleagues argue that also this tongue display offers protection from predators, just because the blue colour stands out against the background. A blue-tongued skink uses its tongue as a defensive strategy at the last moment, they say, when a predator is about to strike. The sudden appearance of the blue tongue startles or overawes the enemy – offering the skink a chance to escape.

Reflexive recoil

The researchers substantiate their arguments with experiments in which individuals of the northern blue-tongued skink, Tiliqua scindoides intermedia, were approached by models of predators: a snake, a monitor lizard, a bird, a fox or, as a control, a piece of wood.

The tested skinks behaved normally until such a predatory enemy came very close. When attack was imminent, they suddenly opened their mouth widely and showed the entire tongue by sticking it out as far as possible. To a piece of wood the threatened skinks responded less strongly than to a predator model. To a bird and a fox they protruded their tongue most often, and to a fox or a snake they exposed the largest area of their tongue. In order to increase the shock effect, they inflated their body and hissed.

The back of the tongue has the most intense colouration, and the tested skunks exposed this part when an enemy was in close proximity. The blue colour is detectable to the visual system of the natural enemies.

Predators cannot learn to ignore such suddenly exposed blue flag, the biologists assume: a recoil reflex is inevitable. They still have to investigate how predators respond in reality. If they really are startled, blue-tongued skins in distress would rightly rely on their tongue as the last defence.

Willy van Strien

Photo: northern blue-tongued skink, Tiliqua scindoides intermedia. ©Shane Black

Badiane, A., P. Carazo, S.J. Price-Rees, M. Ferrando-Bernal & M.J. Whiting, 2018. Why blue tongue? A potential UV-based deimatic display in a lizard. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 72: 104. Doi: 10.1007/s00265-018-2512-8

Camouflage suit

Covered with sponges, a crab is poorly visible

Spider decorator crab Camposcia retusa covered with sponges

The spider decorator crab Camposcia retusa adorns its legs and carapace exuberantly with sponges, probably to mislead predators, Rohan Brooker and colleagues write. The crab accumulates more decorations when it has no access to shelter.

Equipped with a lot of sponges, complemented by some algae and dead organic matter, the spider decorator crab Camposcia retusa moves around: a weird appearance. The crab is associated with tropical coral reefs in the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific Ocean. Why would this little animal, with a carapace that is a few centimetres wide, carry so much stuff that probably hampers its mobility?

According to Rohan Brooker and colleagues, a highly decorated crab is less visible to its predators. In addition, many sponges are noxious or toxic, and they may deter predators that perceive such a crab in spite of its camouflage.

The researchers wanted to learn more about the crab’s decorating behaviour. From reefs, they caught a number of crabs to study their decoration patterns. They then conducted a manipulative behavioural experiment on crabs in tanks to which they added red polyester pompoms of different sizes to see how the crabs would use them.


They found that the animals covered their carapace and the third and fourth sets of walking legs most (they have four pairs of walking legs). In the experiments, they placed the largest and heaviest pompoms only on the hind legs, which are the strongest. The chelipeds – which the crabs use for feeding and communication – and the first set of legs were hardly decorated. The parts of the body on which items are distributed are equipped with hooked seta like those of Velcro, to which pieces of sponge and other material are easily attached.


In another experiment, the crabs either got a shelter in the form of a PVC elbow in their tank or no shelter. The crabs that had no access to shelter decorated more than the crabs that had shelter, hence the conclusion that the decoration is primarily an antipredator defence. Because the animals accumulate and retain a wide range of materials, camouflage most likely is the main effect of decoration. And because they prefer to attach sponges, it may also serve as a deterrent. It would be great if the researchers now would go on to show that predators have more difficulty perceiving a prey in camouflage suit, or that they are deterred by the sponges.

Decoration occurs in many animal species, most frequently in aquatic species. The spider decorator crab Camposcia retusa is a beautiful example of this behaviour.

Willy van Strien

Photo: Patrick Randall (via Flickr, Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Three examples of decorated crabs on YouTube: 1, 2, 3

Brooker, R.M., E.C. Muñoz Ruiz, T.L. Sih & D.L. Dixson, 2017. Shelter availability mediates decorating in the majoid crab, Camposcia retusa. Behavioral Ecology, online Oct. 17. Doi: 10.1093/beheco/arx119

Cryptic leaf colour

Camouflage protects alpine plants from herbivory

Corydalis hemidicentra has stone coloured leaves

In the high mountains of China, Corydalis plants can be found with leaves that are coloured like stone. That is no coincidence: plants without a stone colour are easily detected by butterflies and devoured by caterpillars, show Yang Niu and colleagues.

Apollo butterfly oviposits near Corydalis plantsThe leaves of the alpine plant Corydalis hemidicentra don’t have a fresh green colour; instead, they have the colour of stones: they are either dark grey, reddish brown or greyish green. That is unusual, but it is for a good reason. The plants grow on bare and open stony ground in the very high mountains of southwest China. A normal green leaf colour would attract plant-eating insects, while a cryptic colouration protects the plants from herbivores.

Butterflies’ eyes

The main enemies of the mountain plants are Apollo butterflies, such as Parnassius cephalus. Butterfly females search for a Corydalis plant, which they locate visually, and lay their eggs on the rocks next to it. After emergence, the caterpillars find their meal ready to eat and they consume the plant almost completely.

leaves of Corydalis hemidicentra match against their backgroundThe colour of the leaves of Corydalis hemidicentra almost always match against the background: where the rock is grey, the leaves are grey too; reddish brown plants grow on reddish brown scree; and greyish green plants are found among greyish green stones. Yang Niu and colleagues show that the colour of the plants is similar to the background colour not only to our eyes, but also to butterflies’ eyes. The cryptic colouration arises because the leaves not only contain green pigment (chlorophyll), as normal, but also red pigment (anthocyanin) and air-filled spaces that are white, and the leaf colour is genetically determined.


Previously, Niu had studied another alpine plant, Corydalis benecincta, of which a green and a grey morph exist. He had found that Apollo butterflies detect the green plants much more easily, and as a the consequence, most green plants are damaged by caterpillars, while grey plants often escape. When plants escape from the enemy, their colour is unimportant: greyish green plants perform as well as green plants. Also in Corydalis hemidicentra non-camouflaged individuals will disappear by herbivory, while camouflaged plants survive. That is why the leaf colour of the plants matches against the background.

While camouflage makes the plants invisible for butterflies, they need to be found by pollinators. Thanks to the strikingly coloured flowers – light blue in Corydalis hemidicentra, purplish pink in Corydalis benecincta – they are easy to find to them. But those flowers don’t appear until the plants are no longer at risk, that is: after the period when butterflies are laying their eggs.

So, not only many animals are camouflaged against their surroundings, but there are also plants with background matching leaves, especially in bare mountain areas. In a well-grown area, plants that are attractive to herbivores are camouflaged best by a normal green colour.

Willy van Strien

Photos: ©Yang Niu

Niu, Y., Z. Chen, M. Stevens & H. Sun, 2017. Divergence in cryptic leaf colour provides local camouflage in an alpine plant. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 284: 20171654. Doi: 10.1098/rspb.2017.1654
Niu, Y., G. Chen, D-L. Peng, B. Song, Y. Yang, Z-M. Li & H. Sun, 2014. Grey leaves in an alpine plant: a cryptic colouration to avoid attack? New Phytologist 203: 953-963. Doi: 10.1111/nph.12834

Useful cigarette butts

House finch has to accept harmful side effects

House finches add cigarette butts to their nests to repel parasites

Smoked-trough cigarette filters are noxious, still some bird species add them to their nest lining, where the nicotine will repel blood-sucking parasites. They do so only when they need to, as Monserrat Suárez-Rodríguez and Constantino Macías Garcia show.

Spent cigarette filters are popular among some bird species, for instance the house finch. The birds weave cellulose fibres from discarded butts into the lining of their nests, together with more conventional soft materials such as feathers, fur or cotton. Monserrat Suárez-Rodríguez en Constantino Macías Garcia wondered whether the birds collect cellulose from butts accidently, or whether they do it to protect their young against blood-sucking parasites: lice and ticks. From earlier research, they knew that ectoparasites are repelled by nicotine, and the more smoked-through cigarette butts could be found in a nest, the smaller the amount of parasites was. Weight gain and fledging success of young increased with the proportion of cellulose from butts in the nest lining.

But they also knew that the butts are harmful to adult birds and their offspring. Next to nicotine, the butts contain more than 400 different substances such as heavy metals and insecticides, many of which are toxic. The substances may enter the birds’ bodies through the skin or the lungs.


The research team had analysed blood samples of parents and young and found nuclear abnormalities in many red blood cells (in contrast to human red blood cells, those of birds contain a nucleus with dna). The larger the proportion of butts in the nest lining, the more genotoxic damage was seen. Red blood cells live for only two to four weeks, so the damage may have no serious consequences. But other cells types likely are damaged too. The question is whether the benefits of adding cigarette butts to the nest lining – less parasites, resulting in better growth – are large enough to outweigh these costs.

The answer will depend on how much the butts are needed to fight off parasites.


Now, experiments reveal that house finches act accordingly: they bring more smoked-through cellulose fibres from cigarette butts to their nests if parasites are present than if they’re not. The researchers removed the nest lining from a number of nests shortly after the young hatched, and added a piece of felt instead; by doing so, they removed the bulk of the tick population from the nest as well. They measured the amount of butts in the original lining. They added living ticks to some of the artificial felt nest linings, dead ticks to other linings and nothing to the remaining linings. After the young fledged, they collected the artificial linings to investigate how much butts the parents had added.

It appeared that the birds collected more butts if the researchers had added living ticks to their nest, so when it was useful to bring butts. Also birds that had brought a large amount of butts into their original nest lining, collected many butts now as well; apparently, they had experienced a high parasitic load during incubation.

The birds don’t collect cigarette butts randomly, the conclusion is, but in response to the presence of ectoparasites; so, it is a form of self-medication.

Willy van Strien

Photo: house finch male feeding young. Susan Rachlin (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons CC BY 2.0)

Suárez-Rodríguez, M. & C. Macías Garcia, 2017. An experimental demonstration that house finches add cigarette butts in response to ectoparasites. Journal of Avian Biology, online September 1. Doi: 10.1111/jav.01324
Suárez-Rodríguez, M., R.D. Montero-Montoya & C. Macías Garcia, 2017. Anthropogenic nest materials may increase breeding costs for urban birds. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution 5: 4. Doi: 10.3389/fevo.2017.00004
Suárez-Rodríguez, M. & C. Macías Garcia, 2014. There is no such a thing as a free cigarette; lining nests with discarded butts brings short-term benefits, but causes toxic damage. Journal of Evolutionary Biology 27: 2719–2726. Doi: 10.1111/jeb.12531
Suárez-Rodríguez, M., I. López-Rull & C. Macías Garcia, 2013. Incorporation of cigarette butts into nests reduces nest ectoparasite load in urban birds: new ingredients for an old recipe? Biology Letters 9: 20120931. Doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2012.0931

Trapped, encased, killed

Snails use their shells as a weapon against parasitic worms

a grove snail's shell can kill parasites

Parasitic roundworms that invade a snail’s shell may be trapped, encased and fixed permanently to the inner layer of that shell, as Robbie Rae shows.

Thanks to its shell, a snail is protected against damage, predators, heat and cold, drought and rain. But there is more, as Robbie Rae discovered. The snail also uses its shell as a defence system to eliminate parasitic roundworms (nematodes). These parasites attack snails since snails appeared on earth, about 400 million years ago. It is obvious that snails had to evolve a defence mechanism against these enemies, but until now, no defence mechanism was known.


In his lab, Rae exposed grove snails (Cepaea nemoralis) to the nematode Phasmarhabditis hermaphrodita for several weeks. This bottom dwelling animal, less than 2 millimetres long, is able to penetrate and kill many snail and slug species, but some snails are resistant, as for instance the grove snail. Rae studied the interaction between the grove snail and the worms to find out how the snail eliminates the parasites.

worms attached to the inner layer of the shell of a grove snailIt turned out that the cells on the inner layer of the shell do the job. They adhere to an invading worm, multiply, and swarm over the parasite’s body until it is entirely covered. Engulfed by the cells, it is fused to the inside of the shell and dies. By this procedure, grove snails not only encapsulate this lethal roundworm, but they use the immune reaction also to kill other, less dangerous nematodes, as experiments showed.

In nature, this is common practice. Rae collected grove snails and white-lipped snails (Cepaea hortenis) from the wild and observed that many snails had different species of roundworms attached to their inner shell surface, up to 100 worms in one shell. Also the garden snail (Cornu aspersum) – like the other two snail species an inhabitant of Western Europe – uses its shell to eliminate invading worms by encapsulation.

Old defence

Finally, he examined a large number of snails from museum collections, to conclude that many snails of many different species had nematodes attached to their shells. Trapped worms proved to be fixed permanently; they even can be found in snails that died a few hundred years before. As this defence mechanism is found to be widespread among the large and old clade of terrestrial snails and slugs, it must have evolved about 100 million years ago. Even some slug species eliminate parasitic roundworms by this mechanism. During evolutionary history, their shells have become reduced and internalised, but in many species they retained the ability to trap, encase and kill roundworms.

The vineyard snail (Cernuella virgata) is one of the species that is unable to get rid of the roundworm Phasmarhabditis hermaphrodita. Apparently, the parasite evades its immune reaction in one way or the other. As many slug species are also susceptible to this parasite, it is formulated into a biological control agent to be used against herbivirous slugs.

Willy van Strien

Large: grove snail, Cepaea nemoralis. Kristian Peters (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)
Small: nematodes fixed to the inner layer of a grove snail’s  shell. © Robbie Rae

Rae, R., 2017. The gastropod shell has been co-opted to kill parasitic nematodes. Scientific Reports 7: 4745. Doi: 10.1038/s41598-017-04695-5

Biting prey

Fish with venomous fangs have many imitators

Fangblenny Petroscirtes breviceps mimics a venomous species

Meiacanthus fish species are armed with venomous fangs that deter predators. Many nonvenomous fish species protect themselves from being attacked by mimicking the aposematic colours and the behaviour of Meiacanthus species. A large research team unravelled the evolution of the venomous fish.

A predator fish expecting to easily ingest a small Meiacanthus fish will prove to be wrong. This prey is armed with sharp teeth that inject venom into its enemy. Disoriented, the predator will release its victim – and will not go after the same fish anymore.

Meiacanthus species are the only fish with venomous fangs. They belong to the group of the saber-toothed blennies or fangblennies (Nemophini), which all have a pair of enlarged, hollow canines in the lower jaw. Nicholas Casewell, together with a large research team, has shown that these fangs must have originated in the common ancestor of these blennies. But only species of the genus Meiacanthus developed venomous fangs. They possess venom glands at the base of the fangs and grooves on the fangs to deliver the venom into the wound.

According to the researchers, the venom does not cause pain upon injection, but it reduces the blood pressure in the predator, which becomes weakened and disoriented so that the prey can escape unharmed from its mouth. Blood pressure reduction appears to be such a bad experience that the predator fish will never try to ingest a Meiacanthus again. The venom was found to contain three compounds that had never been found in fish before.


Some non-venomous fangblennies, as well as many fish species from other groups, profit from the aversion that predators have to Meiacanthus species by looking the same and behaving the same. While not mounting a defence against predators themselves, they are still protected from attacks thanks to this mimicry.

What do non-venomous fangblennies use their fangs for? To eat, probably. This holds at least for all Plagiotremus species, which feed on dermal tissue, scales, mucus, and fins of larger fish. If they look like Meiacanthus species, they can easily approach their victims, which are reluctant to attack.

Willy van Strien

Petroscirtes breviceps, with nonvenomous fangs in the lower jaw. ©Alex Ribeiro
CT-scan of the venomous species Meiacanthus grammistes. ©Anthony Romilio (University of Queensland, Australia)

Casewell, N.R., J.C. Visser, K. Baumann, J. Dobson, H. Han, S. Kuruppu, M. Morgan, A. Romilio, V. Weisbecker, S.A. Ali, J. Debono, I. Koludarov, I.Que, G.C. Bird, G.M. Cooke, A. Nouwens, W.C. Hodgson, S.C. Wagstaff, K.L. Cheney, I. Vetter, L. van der Weerd, M.K. Richardson & B.G. Fry, 2017. The evolution of fangs, venom, and mimicry systems in blenny fishes. Current Biology, March 30 online. Doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2017.02.067

Micro army

Cloud of semiautonomous pincers protects sea urchin

Collector sea urchin released a cloud of pincers

When a hungry fish approaches, the collector sea urchin releases a cloud of small biting, venomous pincers that deter its enemy before it has attacked. This peculiar defensive strategy is revealed by Hannah Sheppard-Brennand and colleagues.

In addition to their prominent spines, sea urchins and sea stars possess numerous smaller appendages as well: little pincer-like heads on a movable stalk, called pedicellariae. The pincers have different functions, such as catching food or removing debris – and tormenting predators. For in spite of the unattractive appearance that sea urchins and sea stars have, predators such as fish will pick at their tube feet and other soft tissue. Some species have pedicellariae with teethed jaws and a venom sac to deal with such predators, and anyone who once stepped on such a sea urchin will remember the painful experience.


One species, the collector sea urchin Tripneustes gratilla, deploys these venomous pedicellariae in an unique way, as Hannah Sheppard-Brennand and colleagues show: when harassed, this sea urchin will release a cloud of them in the surrounding water. Upon release, the pincer-like heads behave semi autonomously; they are mobile, have sensory structures and will bite and deliver their venom when they touch a supposed enemy.


Fish are deterred by such a swarm, as lab experiments revealed, and they will leave before they have bitten the sea urchin. Protected by his unique defensive army, the collector sea urchin is able to forage safely on grass and eelgrass during the day, when other sea urchin species have to take shelter, as well as during the night.

Willy van Strien

Collector sea urchin Tripneustes gratilla with a cloud of released pedicellaria heads. © Hannah Sheppard Brennand

Sheppard-Brennand, H., A.G.B. Poore & S.A. Dworjanyn, 2017. A waterborne pursuit-deterrent signal deployed by a sea urchin. The American Naturalist 189, online March 27. Doi: 10.1086/691437

Tiny scarecrow

Red-winged blackbird flinches from whistling caterpillar

red-winged blackbird s scared by whistling caterpillar

It is funny when the tiny caterpillar of the walnut sphinx Amorpha juglandis suddenly emits a high-pitched noise. Thus sound scares birds, as Amanda Dookie and colleagues witnessed, so that they will refrain from picking the caterpillar. Why are birds startled by this whistling caterpillar?

caterpillars od walnut sphinx can make whistling soundsNormally birds are not afraid of a caterpillar, but caterpillars of the moth Amorpha juglandis can scare them, Amanda Dookie and colleagues report, by starting to scream when they are touched – a most peculiar behaviour.

A few years ago, Veronica Bura investigated how the caterpillars produce their high pitched sound. Their respiratory system consists of a network of tubes with on each side a row of openings, the spiracles. When screaming, Bura assessed, walnut sphinx caterpillars contract the front end of their bodies, close all spiracles except the rear pair and expulse the air forcefully through these openings, producing a whistling sound. The posterior spiracles are enlarged compared to the others, which probably is an adaptation for sound production. Often the caterpillars also thrash their heads to defend themselves while whistling, and Dookie wanted to know if the whistle sound in itself is enough to frighten birds, and how great the startling effect is.

Startle response

To find out, she exposed a number of male red-winged blackbirds to playbacks of caterpillar whistles that had been recorded before. Just like the walnut sphinx, red-winged blackbirds are to be found throughout North America. The experimental birds were housed in individual cages and provided mealworms on a small platform for four days before the tests started. Then the platform was equipped with a sensor and a speaker, and as soon as a bird touched the dish during a test, the whistling sound was played back.

That had a huge effect: the sound evoked a startle response in all birds. Most flew away, hopped backwards or clapped their wings. After a while they tried again to pick a mealworm and then they heard the whistle sound again. The birds got habituated a bit and the startle response decreased over time, but when they were exposed to the sound after two days of rest, they were as frightened as they had been the first time.


Can the caterpillars protect themselves from hungry birds by whistling? Probably so. In the wild, the birds scurry around and when they are scared by a noisy caterpillar, they will abandon that prey and move on in search of another.

But why are birds scared by a whistling caterpillar that is not dangerous or venomous, as far as is known? The birds may associate the short, high-pitched sound with danger, the researchers propose, because the sound is similar to the alarm call that many birds emit when they are threatened. A fright response to such alarm call is hard-wired in birds, and this seems to be exploited by the caterpillars when they mimic the call.

Willy van Strien

Large: red-winged blackbird Agelaius phoeniceus. Janet Beasly (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0)
Small: caterpillar of walnut sphinx, Amorpha juglandis. © Jayne Yack

Dookie, A.L., C.A. Young, G. Lamothe, L.A. Schoenle & J.E. Yack, 2017. Why do caterpillars whistle at birds? Insect defence sounds startle avian predators. Behavioural Processes, 138: 58-66. Doi: 10.1016/j.beproc.2017.02.002
Bura, V.L., V.G. Rohwer, P.R. Martin & J.E. Yack, 2011. Whistling in caterpillars (Amorpha juglandis, Bombycoidea): sound-producing mechanism and function. The Journal of Experimental Biology 214: 30-37. Doi:10.1242/jeb.046805