The Independent’s journalism is supported by our readers. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn commission.

Caterpillar with a 'hat' of discarded heads uses it to fend off attackers, study finds

Scientists have found that the caterpillar may use its unusual hat to protect itself from predators

Doug Bolton
Thursday 24 March 2016 18:18
An Uraba lugens caterpillar with a tower of discarded skulls still attaches to its head
An Uraba lugens caterpillar with a tower of discarded skulls still attaches to its head

A species of caterpillar uses a stack of its old discarded skulls as an armoured 'helmet' to help fend off predators, scientists have found.

The Uraba lugens, commonly found in Australia and New Zealand, is usually known as the 'gum leaf skeletoniser' for its habit of eating eucalyptus leaves and leaving behind only the stems.

It's also nicknamed the 'Mad Hatterpillar', for an unusual protrusion which appears while it's still a larva.

As the creature grows, it sheds its exoskeleton, like many other insects.

However, the head part of the exoskeleton remains attached to the body during shedding. Over the course of multiple sheds, the collection of heads grows, piling on top of each other and forming a horn-shaped protrusion.

It's an interesting spectacle, but there hasn't been much research into why they hold on to their heads.

These video screenshots show the caterpillar using its 'horn' to fend off an attacker (Pic: Petah Low)

Now, a study published in PeerJ, conducted by the University of Syndney's Petah Low, has suggested that the 'skull helmet' may help them survive attacks by predators.

Low and her team took a number of these caterpillars and removed some of their helmets. The caterpillars then faced off against a larger insect, and their survival times were measured.

They found that caterpillars equipped with the helmets were more than twice as likely to survive their battles than those without, possibly because they used the appendages as weapons, or because they acted as a false target for the predators.

As the BBC reports, the sample size of the study was small, but it does shed some light on the behaviours of one of the most unusual insects in the animal kingdom.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in