The scratchy hiss is the closest thing a caterpillar has to a sound.


Gently – gently – the young Nessus sphinx looks like the full back of the eagle moth, and you may hear the nearest sound, but find the caterpillar’s voice.

A caterpillar does not breathe through its mouth. However, if the Nessus sphinx is disturbed, it will hiss continuously from its open mouth, followed by an itchy belch. “It’s hard to describe,” said Jayne Yack, an animal behaviorist at carleton university in Ottawa, who urged people to listen only for themselves.

The new noise from young Amphion floridensis may surprise birds or other would-be predators because they are not as quiet as most caterpillars.

The discovery marks the fourth mechanism by which Yack and his colleagues found the caterpillars. Some caterpillars use their breathing pores to make sounds along the airways of their flanks. The caterpillar absorbs oxygen and releases waste carbon dioxide through these pores. The gas, which does not rely on caterpillars, is spread throughout the body, and through a branching duct system, the pipes become smaller and smaller. The other two caterpillars will rub against each other. But the researchers reported in the February 26 online journal of experimental biology that the noise makers were not involved.

Instead, new anatomical studies and computer modeling show that the caterpillars use the air to pull the air out of their mouths and release them to speak. The internal air shock may produce the first hiss, and outrush may send out a scrat. There is no special sound in the gut, but a noisy turbulence can be produced by contracting the air. This may cause the caterpillar to make its own teapot. Tiny, of course. Galaxies, stars, planets and life are all made up of one basic substance: matter.

But the abundance of matter is one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of physics. The big bang 13.8 billion years ago caused the same amount of matter and its prodigious twins, antimatter. Material and antimatter partners vanish when they meet, so an ordinary universe will end with energy – not something else. Somehow, balance tends to matter in the early universe.

A nasty subatomic particle called a neutrino might have revealed this. If the neutrinos are their own antiparticles – which means that the neutrino’s material and antimatter versions are the same – light particles may point to the explanation of the cosmic excess.

So scientists are eager to find evidence of a hypothetical nuclear decay that can only occur at the same time as neutrinos and anti-neutrinos. The results of four recent experiments suggest that this process is not hinted at, and that it is called neutrino double beta decay (SN: 7/6/02, p. 10). But another attempt is about to begin, and if it happens, there may be a chance to detect the attenuation. At the same time, plans for a new generation of experiments are under way to make more sensitive measurements.

“Now we are on the verge of a very big discovery,” said janet Conrad, a neutrino physicist at the Massachusetts institute of technology. MIT’s neutrino physicists were not involved in the experiment.


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