Acoustic signals produced by caterpillars have been documented for over 100 years, but in the majority of cases their significance is unknown. This study is the first to experimentally examine the phenomenon of audible sound production in larval Lepidoptera, focusing on a common silkmoth caterpillar, Antheraea polyphemus (Saturniidae). Larvae produce airborne sounds, resembling `clicks', with their mandibles. Larvae typically signal multiple times in quick succession, producing trains that last over 1 min and include 50–55 clicks. Individual clicks within a train are on average 24.7 ms in duration, often consisting of multiple components. Clicks are audible in a quiet room, measuring 58.1–78.8 dB peSPL at 10 cm. They exhibit a broadband frequency that extends into the ultrasound spectrum, with most energy between 8 and 18 kHz. Our hypothesis that clicks function as acoustic aposematic signals, was supported by several lines of evidence. Experiments with forceps and domestic chicks correlated sound production with attack, and an increase in attack rate was positively correlated with the number of signals produced. In addition, sound production typically preceded or accompanied defensive regurgitation. Bioassays with invertebrates (ants) and vertebrates (mice) revealed that the regurgitant is deterrent to would-be predators. Comparative evidence revealed that other Bombycoidea species, including Actias luna (Saturniidae) and Manduca sexta (Sphingidae), also produce airborne sounds upon attack, and that these sounds precede regurgitation. The prevalence and adaptive significance of warning sounds in caterpillars is discussed.
- acoustic aposematism
- sound production
- Antheraea polyphemus
- © The Company of Biologists Limited 2007