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Environment and Outdoors

Browntail moth caterpillars can feed on conifers, UMaine researchers discover

browntail moth pic.jpg
Murray Carpenter
Maine Public
A browntail moth caterpillar, which can cause intense itching and discomfort in some people.

Researchers at the University of Maine say they have new findings about the diet habits of the invasive browntail moth. The discovery could point to further spread of the insects, which can cause intense itching and discomfort in some people.

For most of the last century, Maine's browntail moths were limited to the Casco Bay region. But over the last several years, they've spread across the state.

The caterpillars especially favor oaks and fruit trees, and were thought to feed solely on deciduous trees. But in May, when a University of Maine student in Angela Mech's lab noticed a caterpillar feeding on a spruce tree, Mech decided to investigate.

"And so I had her bring in some samples, and with pictures and an experiment we see that browntail moth can feed on conifers as well," Mech said.

The finding suggests the moths might be able to spread into coniferous forests in Maine, further expanding their range.

Mech said there is also a bit of good news. The recent spell of cool, wet weather has allowed a fungus to kill many browntail moth caterpillars, giving some Mainers who are sensitive to them a bit of a reprieve.