Virus is to blame for horde of '˜zombie' caterpillars spotted in Lancashire

Zombie caterpillars have been spotted in Lancashire.

Monday, 31st July 2017, 12:47 pm
Updated Monday, 11th September 2017, 12:43 pm
'Zombie' caterpillars that have died after being taken over by a virus have been found in Lancashire at Winmarleigh Moss

Wildlife experts say the creatures are being infected by a virus that takes over their bodies – and sends them on a march to their deaths.

The skins of the caterpillars have been discovered at the top of small bushes on Winmarleigh Moss, near Garstang.

The caterpillar is driven by the microorganism –known as baculovirus – which then bursts out of the corpse to seek victims below.

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“It’s like a zombie horror film,” said Dr Chris Miller, The Wildlife Trust for Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside’s mosslands manager.

He found a pair of caterpillars ‘dead but otherwise intact’ while carrying out a heath butterfly survey – along with evidence they were not the only ones affected.

He added: “It’s pretty gruesome when you think about it.

“It is really unusual seeing caterpillars high up as they can be eaten by birds.

“This is a caterpillar of the oak eggar moth which eats heather and bilberry so it is normally hidden in the undergrowth, not at the top of plants.”

Research is proving that the baculovirus actually affects the way the ‘zombie’ insects respond to light, making them climb to higher and more dangerous places and when they get there they die.

Oak eggar moths are named because of their acorn-like cocoon. They grow into reddish brown moths and males fly during the day. The Wildlife Trust owns Winmarleigh Moss and aims to transfer the large heath butterfly to other areas where it is extinct.