Caterpillars Retrieve 'Voicemail' by Eating Soil


Leaf-feeding caterpillars greatly enrich their intestinal flora by eating soil. 

Leaf-feeding caterpillars greatly enrich their intestinal flora by eating soil. It's even possible to trace the legacy effects of plants that previously grew in that soil through bacteria and fungi in the caterpillars. Researchers of the Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW) have just published these findings in the journal Nature Communications. They are of interest not just to scientists, but also to plant growers and farmers.

Do caterpillars play doctor? There are definitely similarities with human children, says NIOO-researcher Martijn Bezemer. "Children sometimes put soil in their mouths, and it's supposed to boost their immune system. It now appears that caterpillars do the same."

Plant phones and voicemail

Earlier NIOO research had found that belowground and aboveground insects can communicate with each other using plants as a kind of 'green telephone'. Messages can even be left in the soil to be retrieved later, like voicemail. This new research by a team of four ecologists shows that surprisingly, aboveground insects such as caterpillars can retrieve these voicemails from the soil without any mediation from plants.

Read more at Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW)

Image: During the experiment, the caterpillars were served either complete dandelion plants or clipped dandelion leaves. With the first menu option came the soil as a bonus, and the caterpillars made use of that opportunity to enrich their intestinal flora. (Credit: NIOO-KNAW)