Press release NIOO-KNAW

Caterpillars retrieve 'voicemail' by eating soil

19 March 2019

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 published these findings in the journal Nature Communications, 19 March 2019. 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.'

Caterpillar of the cabbage moth (the species studied in the experiment, Wikipedia

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.

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The Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO)

The Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW) is an Academy research institute. It conducts ecological research on land, in the ocean and in fresh water and studies how living organisms interact with one another and their environment. NIOO stimulates biodiversity and sustainability in nature and society through its worldwide network of researchers, policymakers, conservationists and other stakeholders.

The Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW) is located in Wageningen (Droevendaalsesteeg 10, 6708 PB Wageningen).