AppearanceIt is sometimes confused with the gypsy moth and the fall webworm, and may be erroneously referred to as a bagworm, which is the common name applied to unrelated caterpillars in the family Psychidae. The moths oviposit almost exclusively on trees in the plant family Rosaceae, particularly cherry and apple . The caterpillars are hairy with areas of blue, white, black and orange. The blue and white colors are structural colors created by the selective filtering of light by microtubules that arise on the cuticle.
StatusThe eastern tent caterpillar is of some importance as a pest because it defoliates ornamental trees. Damaged trees, however, typically recover and refoliate within several weeks.
BehaviorTent caterpillars are among the most social of larvae. The adult moth lays her eggs in a single batch in late spring or early summer. An egg mass contains about 200 to 300 eggs. Embryogenesis proceeds rapidly, and within three weeks, fully formed caterpillars can be found within the eggs. The small caterpillars lie quiescent until the following spring, when they chew their way out of the eggs just as the buds of the host tree begin to develop.
The newly hatched caterpillars initiate the construction of a silk tent soon after emerging. They typically aggregate at the tent site throughout their larval stage, expanding the tent each day to accommodate their increasing size. Under field conditions, the caterpillars feed three times each day, just before dawn, at midafternoon, and in the evening after sunset. During each bout of feeding, the caterpillars emerge from the tent, add silk to the structure, move to distant feeding sites ''en masse'', feed, and then return immediately to the tent where they rest until the next activity period. The exception to this feeding pattern occurs in the last instar, when the caterpillars feed only at night. The insect has six larval instars. At the last stage, the caterpillars disperse and each constructs a cocoon in a protected place. The adult moths, or imagoes, emerge about two weeks later. They are strictly nocturnal and start flying after nightfall, coming to rest within a few hours of dawn. Mating and oviposition typically occur on the day the moths emerge from their cocoons; the females die soon thereafter.
Tent caterpillars, like many other species of social caterpillars, vigorously thrash the anterior part of their bodies when they detect predators and parasitoids. Such bouts of thrashing, which may be initiated by a single caterpillar, radiate rapidly through the colony and may result in group displays involving dozens of caterpillars. Such displays create a moving target for tachinid flies, wasps, and other small parasitoids that would lay eggs on or in the body of the caterpillar. They also clearly deter stink bugs and other timid predators. Groups of caterpillars resting on the surface of the tent constitute aposematic displays. Few birds other than cuckoos find the hairy caterpillars palatable. Cherry leaves are cyanogenic and the caterpillars regurgitate cyanide-laden juices when disturbed.
FoodTent caterpillars secrete silk from a spinneret wherever they go, and frequently-used pathways soon bear conspicuous silk trails. As the caterpillars move about the tree, they largely confine their movements to these trails. They lay down pheromones along the trails by dragging their abdomens. Caterpillars that find food may overmark the exploratory trails they follow back to the tent, creating recruitment trails. Recruitment trails are much more attractive to its brethren than exploratory trails, and serve to lead the group directly to the newest food source. A single successful forager can recruit the entire colony to its food find.
The exact identity of the trail pheromone of the eastern tent caterpillar has not yet been determined, but the chemical 5β-cholestane-3-one has been shown to be fully competitive with it. Caterpillars readily follow trails of this chemical, even abandoning their own trails in favor of artificial trails prepared with the compound.
DefenseThe eastern tent caterpillar is toxic to horses. It has been linked to mare reproductive loss syndrome in horses, but the exact mechanism by which the caterpillar triggers abortion has yet to be determined. Experimental studies have shown that when pregnant mares are fed eastern tent caterpillars, they abort. The caterpillars of this species often feed on the highly cyanogenic black cherry tree and the mares were originally thought to abort in response to the cyanide they consumed along with the caterpillars. However, that hypothesis was disproved. In another study, the necropsy of a mare fed eastern tent caterpillars showed fragments of the caterpillar's setae had embedded in the gut wall, and it was hypothesized that they may facilitate the passage of infective agents from the horse's gut into the bloodstream and then to the placenta, triggering abortion.
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