Gypsy Moth Zombies

In March 2011, I posted about ants turned into “zombies” by a virus infection. The behavior of the infected ants is altered by the virus infection, thus the comparison to zombies in popular SciFi movies. Ants are not the only insects that can be turned into zombies by diseases. Gypsy moth caterpillars can become zombies, also.

Gypsy moth caterpillars are pests of forests that feed on the leaves of trees. Large populations can defoliate large areas of forest and eat all the leaves off a homeowner’s tree. Before molting from caterpillar to pupa, healthy gypsy moth caterpillars commonly climb down the tree trunk. However, instead of climbing down the tree, virus infected “zombie” caterpillars climb high in the tree canopy and die in the crowns of the trees. From this elevated position, gypsy moth cadavers, filled with virus, will rain down virus on other caterpillars, spreading the disease. The virus can contaminate the trees and remain active for years. Infection can spread to newly emerging caterpillars the following year.

The gypsy moth virus can be produced in large quantities (Gypchek) and is approved by EPA for use in gypsy moth control. Virus is one factor that can end gypsy moth outbreaks and suppress populations for years. Climbing to the tree crown before dying increases the virus spread.

How can a virus turn a caterpillar into a zombie? A recent study has identified a single virus gene that is responsible for the behavior. The gene (EGT) encodes an enzyme that biochemically modifies an important insect hormone, 20-hydroxyecdysone, by attaching a sugar to the hormone. In uninfected caterpillars, the 20-hydroxyecdysone triggers a cascade of neurological and behavioral events including molt initiation. It is not surprising that biochemical alteration of the behavior altering hormone, has disruptive effects on the caterpillar behavior. The EGT effect could be due to decreasing the amount of the 20-hydroxyecdysone or by unique effects of the altered hormone. The caterpillars suffer a series of “bad hormone days” drastically affecting their behavior.

The study found that caterpillars infected with a virus containing the EGT gene would climb to the tops of their container before dying. Caterpillars infected with virus that had the EGT gene removed would often die on the bottom of the container. The EGT gene is implicated in altering the caterpillar behavior and forcing the zombie caterpillar to climb to the top of a tree.

The details of the study by Hoover et al. can be found here:
Science 9 September 2011: Vol. 333 no. 6048 p. 1401
DOI: 10.1126/science.1209199

Gypsy Moth Caterpillars Killed by Virus
Photo: http://main.nc.us/SERAMBO/BControl/gypsy.html

About jjneal

Jonathan Neal is an Associate Professor of Entomology at Purdue University and author of the textbook, Living With Insects (2010). This blog is a forum to communicate about the intersection of insects with people and policy. This is a personal blog. The opinions and materials posted here are those of the author and are in no way connected with those of my employer.
This entry was posted in behavior, Environment, Invasive Species, Pest Management. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Gypsy Moth Zombies

  1. I read about the ants, this is fantastic! Its really unbelievable to think that we can fight fire with fire in this case; the infection itself treating population control of Gypsy Moths.

    • jjneal says:

      The virus is important, but other management strategies can also be useful. One of the most important strategies is to not move firewood into uninfested areas. Moving firewood can move gypsy moth eggs into areas that do not have gypsy moth. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

      The virus load may decrease substantially when Gypsy moth populations are low. Gyspy moth has outbreaks followed by periods of low population. The virus builds during high populations and lingers for several years. Eventually, the virus is reduced enough in the environment that new outbreaks are possible. Other factors are important. Gypsy moth inhabits forests containing important “non-target” species including areas inhabited and frequented by people. It is important that our management strategies be as specific and targeted as possible.

  2. Lydia Cao says:

    It is really fantastic. I think that zombies would only be appeared in novels and science fiction or horror films. Sometimes I saw these zombies on the trees but, obviously, I did not know these are called zombies. I think this is interesting to learn. When i saw all the posts there, I was attracted by this at first. It seems that EGT gene is that one of the most important elements to turn a caterpillar into a zombie. But i still consider two questions that how these zombies die? or how they disappear? Will these zombies still have bad effects on trees?

    • browny says:

      The zombies die because the virus takes over their cells to produce more virus instead of taking care of the insect.

      Infected caterpillars can still feed and damage trees. However, once the virus concentration gets too high, they stop eating.

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