R. Mukherjee, D. P. Caron, T. Edson, and B. A. Trimmer
In response to a noxious stimulus on the abdomen, caterpillars lunge their head towards the site of stimulation. This nocifensive “strike” behavior is fast (~0.5 s duration), targeted, and usually unilateral. It is not clear how the fast strike movement is generated and controlled, because caterpillar muscle develops peak force relatively slowly (~1 s) and the baseline hemolymph pressure is low (<2 kPa). Here we show that strike movements are largely driven by ipsilateral muscle activation that propagates from anterior to posterior segments. There is no sustained pre-strike muscle activation that would be expected for movements powered by the rapid release of stored elastic energy. Although muscle activation on the ipsilateral side is correlated with segment shortening, activity on the contralateral side consists of two phases of muscle stimulation and a marked decline between them. This decrease in motor activity precedes rapid expansion of the segment on the contralateral side, presumably allowing the body wall to stretch more easily. The subsequent increase in contralateral motor activation may slow or stabilize movements as the head reaches its target. Strike behavior is therefore a controlled fast movement involving the coordination of muscle activity on each side and along the length of the body.