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Carnivorous caterpillars: the behavior, biogeography and conservation of Eupithecia (Lepidoptera: Geometridae) in the Hawaiian Islands

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Abstract

A completely new feeding pattern has been found among caterpillars native to Hawaii: certain geometrid larvae (commonly called “inchworms”) consume no leaves or other plant matter. Instead, they perch inconspicuously along leaf edges and stems to seize insects that touch their posterior body section. By bending the front of their body backwards in a very rapid strike, the caterpillars opportunistically capture their prey with elongated, spiny legs and 900 larvae and eggs of these moths have been collected from native forests of all the main islands and reared in the laboratory. All are species of Eupithecia, a worldwide group of over 1000 members that had been reported to feed only on plant matter such as flowers, leaves or seeds. At least 6 of Hawaii's described Eupithecia species are raptorially carnivorous, only 2 are known to feed predominantly on plant material, especially Metrosideros flowers. A diet including protein-rich flower pollen and a defensive behavior of snapping may have preadapted Hawaii's ancestral Eupithecia for a shift to predation. Severe barriers to dispersal of mantids and other continental insect predators into Hawaii resulted in an environment favoring behavioral and consequent morphological adaptations that produced these singular insects, which can be commonly called the “grappling inchworms”. Most damage to native biota and habitat is due to imported species or “biological pollution”, and has caused a serious need for protective management.

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Montgomery, S.L. Carnivorous caterpillars: the behavior, biogeography and conservation of Eupithecia (Lepidoptera: Geometridae) in the Hawaiian Islands. GeoJournal 7, 549–556 (1983). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00218529

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