Movement behaviour of two social urticating caterpillars in opposite hemispheres

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Background: Investigating movement ecology of organisms has economic, societal, and conservation benefits. Larval movement of insects for example, plays many significant ecological roles, and with the expansion of the human population and development, encounters and conflicts with insects have increased. Urticating caterpillars are a health concern to people and animals, especially when they disperse in a gregarious and synchronised manner in areas frequented by humans. Ochrogaster lunifer and Thaumetopoea pityocampa from the southern and northern hemispheres respectively, are two geographically-isolated species of moth with similar gregarious urticating caterpillars that can outbreak causing defoliation and medical issues. Methods: Each year from March to May, O. lunifer and T. pityocampa caterpillars leave their nesting sites and form head-to-tail processions on the ground in search of pupation sites. This pre-pupation procession behaviour and its associated risk of human contact with O. lunifer and T. pityocampa caterpillars were studied and compared in Australia and Italy, respectively. The distance, duration, orientation and response to visible light of the pre-pupation processions were studied in both species to determine general patterns. Results: In the morning, O. lunifer and T. pityocampa processions travelled on average 40 and 16 m per day from the nest in 153 and 223 min respectively, in search for potential pupation sites. Ochrogaster lunifer pre-pupation processions travelled generally to the north or south when leaving the nest, as was their final orientation to the bivouac/pupation site. Whereas T. pityocampa processions had no preference in orientation. Ochrogaster lunifer and T. pityocampa pre-pupation processions travelled towards the darker and the lighter areas of the environment, respectively. During our observations, 27% of O. lunifer and 44% of T. pityocampa processions had contact with humans driving, cycling or walking. Conclusions: The amount of human contact is surprising and alarming, because of the serious health implications they cause to humans and animals. The processionary dispersal on the ground risks further spread of urticating hairs that can be easily detached, and particular during inadvertent contact. Our limited sample size of T. pityocampa processions may benefit from more observations to make conclusive remarks on their pre-pupation behaviour. Understanding the movement behaviour of O. lunifer and T. pityocampa pre-pupation processions around populated areas is crucial for predicting exposure risk and application of management strategies.




Uemura, M., Perkins, L. E., Zalucki, M. P., & Battisti, A. (2020). Movement behaviour of two social urticating caterpillars in opposite hemispheres. Movement Ecology, 8(1).

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