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Tiny hairy caterpillars pose a great danger on thoroughbred breeding

Posted February 4, 2018

How a small hairy caterpillar can cost millions of dollars to an ages old industry, which was known for its strength even during difficult periods of history? Bag-shelter moth caterpillars are said to cause a significant portion of abortion in thoroughbred mares, which is a big problem for the Australian racing industry. But now scientists from The University of Queensland are helping farmers to minimise this threat.

A small caterpillar can cause huge losses for the entire racing horse industry. Image credit: Louis via Wikimedia(CC BY-SA 2.0)

Bag-shelter moth caterpillars (Ochrogaster lunifer) are said to be responsible for up to one-third of abortions in thoroughbreds, causing equine amnionitis and fetal loss by inflaming the placental membrane. These caterpillars are actually quite common and horses simply eat them with grass or at least ingest their tiny nests. Bag-shelter moth caterpillars are known to be irritating skin of humans as well, because they are covered in up to 2.5 million dangerous tiny hairs. Scientists prepared some guidelines that will, hopefully, help the farmers to deal with this threat.

Bag-shelter moth caterpillars are quite interesting creatures. They are known as processionary caterpillars because they walk nose-to-tail in lines when they leave their nests. These processions can stretch to several meters from gum or wattle trees to some patches of grass. These caterpillars are also quite common, which makes them pretty much unavoidable, especially since harmful health effects are caused by their tiny hair and not the body itself. Minute spike-like hair gets everywhere and can be ingested even after the caterpillar is gone.

Scientists also prepared a website, a brochure and a poster with timelines for action. This will help farmers make better informed decisions about dealing with bag-shelter moth caterpillars, because some preventive measures can be taken. For example, farmers should remove moth egg nests from the trees. They are typically found in big masses which are easy to deal with. They should also wear protective equipment to protect themselves from these irritating hairs. Scientists are also looking to further research possibilities.

There are wasps that feed on caterpillar eggs – they could be introduced as a biological population control method, but only after an extensive research on what it would do to the entire ecosystem. New ways to dispose of caterpillar hair should be considered as well. Finally, scientists want to look what other insects could be causing equine amnionitis in horses and other animals.


Source: The University of Queensland

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