Like something out of a B-grade horror movie, caterpillars in the English countryside are becoming infected with a microorganism that causes the host to lose its mind and then liquify.
The gruesome deaths are courtesy of the baculovirus, a pathogen that commonly infects invertebrates such as moths, sawflies, mosquitoes and shrimp. The latest outbreak occurring in Lancashire, England, has been targeting oak eggar moth caterpillars.
“I was carrying out a large heath butterfly survey on Winmarleigh Moss and noticed a caterpillar hanging from the end of a branch of a small bush," Dr. Chris Miller of The Wildlife Trust recalled in a blog post. "Later on I saw another one hanging from a tall blade of grass. Both were dead, but otherwise intact."
The 'melted' corpse of an oak eggar moth caterpillar previously infected with the baculovirus. (Photo: The Wildlife Trust)
Caterpillars and other insects generally become unwitting hosts to the baculovirus after feeding on infected plants. The virus then rapidly reproduces, inducing the host to feed without rest. Once the infection enters the later stages, the baculovirus reprograms the host to climb to the top of branches and leaves — places such defenseless insects would generally never venture towards. Like the film "Alien," the virus then bursts from the "melting" host and drips onto the leaves below to begin the process all over again.
“It’s like a zombie horror film,” Miller added.
Different strains of the baculovirus are commonly used as biopesticides to kill specific pests. (Photo: ejagrojunior/Instagram)
Baculoviruses are so effective at killing specific species of insects, that they've actually been used as a biopesticide on crops since the 1940s. At least eight products are currently on the market to target everything from codling moths on fruit trees to gypsy moths in forests.
Lucky for humanity, while baculoviruses are capable of entering mammalian cells in culture, the virus is unable to replicate. Yet.
Attention Hollywood: Your next zombie plot line is ripe for the taking.