Many insects produce sounds when attacked by a predator, yet the functions of these signals are poorly understood. It is debated whether such sounds function as startle, warning or alarm signals, or merely serve to augment other defences. Direct evidence is limited owing to difficulties in disentangling the effects of sounds from other defences that often occur simultaneously in live insects. We conducted an experiment to test whether an insect sound can function as a deimatic (i.e. startle) display. Variations of a whistle of the walnut sphinx caterpillar (Amorpha juglandis) were presented to a predator, red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus), when birds activated a sensor while feeding on mealworms (Tenebrio molitor). Birds exposed to whistles played back at natural sound levels exhibited significantly higher startle scores (by flying away, flinching, and hopping) and took longer to return to the feeding dish than during control conditions where no sounds were played. Birds habituated to sounds during a one-hour session, but after two days the startling effects were restored. Our results provide empirical evidence that an insect sound alone can function as a deimatic display against an avian predator. We discuss how whistles might be particularly effective ‘acoustic eye spots’ on avian predators.

Additional Metadata
Keywords Acoustic, Avian, Caterpillar, Defence, Deimatic display, Insect, Startle
Persistent URL
Journal Behavioural Processes
Dookie, A.L. (Amanda L.), Young, C.A. (Courtney A.), Lamothe, G. (Gilles), Schoenle, L.A. (Laura A.), & Yack, J. (2017). Why do caterpillars whistle at birds? Insect defence sounds startle avian predators. Behavioural Processes, 138, 58–66. doi:10.1016/j.beproc.2017.02.002