Caterpillar Defense

Was the Very Hungry Caterpillar also very TOXIC?

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science.

Caterpillars may look cute — but some have prickly protection! Take the painted cup moth caterpillar. It’s scientific name, Doratifera vulnerans, means “bearer of painful gifts” — and for good reason! To fend off foes, this caterpillar is COVERED in venomous spines. But what “gifts” could this crawling critter come bearing? 

Enter Andrew Walker from the University of Queensland and colleagues. The team extracted venom from several hundred caterpillars found on eucalyptus trees in Brisbane, Australia. They analyzed all the venom proteins to determine what toxins were present.  

Results? The venom was VERY complex! It contained just over ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY unique toxic compounds. Not only that – some of them were found to be successful at killing both disease-causing bacteria and a parasite that commonly infects livestock. 

The team hopes this venom could be used to develop new medications. That would be a welcome – if painful – gift indeed!

Until then, I will just admire this crawling critter from afar! 

Reference: Walker, A. A., Robinson, S. D., Paluzzi, J. P. V., Merritt, D. J., Nixon, S. A., Schroeder, C. I., Jin, J., Goudarzi, M. H., Kotze, A. C., Dekan, Z., Sombke, A., Alewood, P. F., Fry, B. G., Epstein, M. E., Vetter, I., & King, G. F. (2021). Production, composition, and mode of action of the painful defensive venom produced by a limacodid caterpillar, Doratifera vulnerans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118(18), e2023815118.