Plants under attack can turn hungry caterpillars into cannibals

When does a (typically) vegetarian caterpillar become a cannibalistic caterpillar, even when there is still plenty of plant left to eat?

When the tomato plant it's feeding on makes cannibalism the best option.

"It often starts with one caterpillar biting another one in the rear, which then oozes. And it goes downhill from there," says University of Wisconsin-Madison integrated biology Professor John Orrock, author of a new study published July 10 in Nature Ecology & Evolution that examines how plants, in defending themselves from insect predation, can encourage insects to become cannibals.

"At the end of the day, somebody gets eaten," he says.

It started when Orrock wondered whether a tomato plant could ever taste so horrible that an herbivore that would typically munch on its green leaves would instead turn to its buddy and begin to consume him or her instead.

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