Zombie Caterpillars and Voodoo Wasps

caterpillarIt’s time for another installment of creepy insect facts at Mock Duck (pun intended!).  Today’s installment is much weirder than any ant fact, real or imagined, previously disclosed.  

Apparently, wasps plant their larvae inside caterpillars, and the larvae then burst out of the caterpillars, Alien-style, where they spin cocoons and wait to turn into wasps.  But here’s the truly disturbing part: somehow, while they’re in there, the larvae turn the caterpillars into zombie bodyguards, which stand guard over the cocoons until they hatch, and thrash around whenever a beetle or other predator comes sniffing along.  And if you think that this is one of these cuddly animal kingdom symbiotic relationships, think again: the moment the wasps hatch, the zombie caterpillar bodyguards die! 

The best part about this is that the scientists who have figured it out have no clue at all how it works — somehow these larvae are programming the caterpillars to guard over them, and then to drop dead the moment they’re no longer needed, but it is a total mystery how (although this article, which also discusses the wasp-in-caterpillar thing but doesn’t address the zombie bodyguard aspect, talks about the wasps somehow manipulating the caterpillars’ DNA, so that may have something to do with it). 

This article, which explains the zombie bodyguard phenomenon, also makes reference to a similar ant fact, wherein parasites infect ants and then somehow convince them to render themselves vulnerable to snacking sheep, so the parasites can get inside the sheep’s bellies.   When it comes to really screwy devious manipulation, we humans may have nothing on our resourceful insect and parasite neighbors.

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