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Cocooned car.


This vehicle, with its caterpillar covering, looks like it belongs in a horror flick. Too bad for the owner, the vehicle is no movie prop. Thousands of caterpillars in the Netherlands spun a giant cocoon that coated everything nearby, including the car, trees, and even the street.

The culprits were spindle ermine caterpillars (Yponomeuta cagnatella). They belong to the moth family and weave silk mats. Many caterpillars create silk tentlike cocoons to keep predators like wasps from stinging them or from laying eggs inside their bodies. "The tent makes it difficult for insect predators to get to the protected caterpillars," says Coby Schal, an entomologist at North Carolina State University.

The cocoons also offer some protection against birds that feast on caterpillars. "Birds can tear apart the tent, but this involves some work, and some tents contain regurgitate and plant compounds that can irritate the birds," says Schal.

To create a cocoon, a caterpillar produces liquid protein from a spinneret, a tubelike structure on its lower lip. The liquid dries and becomes a solid-fiber silk when it is exposed to the air. To attach the silk to a structure, the caterpillar swings its head from side to side. In this case, a red station wagon was the caterpillars' choice.

Why the car? Spindle ermine caterpillars love to dine on the leaves of spindle trees. "Most likely, they completely defoliated [deprived of leaves] the nearby trees and descended in search of more food," says Schal. Looks like it's time for a car wash!

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Article Details
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Title Annotation:GROSS OUT
Author:Satre, Hallie
Publication:Science World
Article Type:Brief article
Geographic Code:4EUNE
Date:Feb 1, 2010
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