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Mysterious caterpillars befuddle experts

EXPERTS from Beijing have joined other Chinese scientists in trying to identify mystery caterpillars that are destroying pastures in northwestern China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

"We are waiting for the caterpillars to change into chrysalides, and will be able to identify them only after moths are produced," said Gao Song, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences.

Gao arrived in Xinjiang on Monday to observe samples of the 2-centimeter thorny green caterpillar with black stripes at a laboratory of Xinjiang Agricultural University.

He and his colleagues were expecting to identify them from the size, color, wings and genitalia of the moths.

"The mystery may remain unsolved for months if the caterpillars choose to (sleep through) the hot, arid summer and postpone their metamorphosis until fall," he said yesterday.

Su Hongtian, an expert with the Ministry of Agriculture, has taken samples of the caterpillars to Beijing, where he hopes to use DNA technology to identify their species.

"If their DNA data is not in the existing databank, we, too, need to wait until moths are produced," said Su.

The caterpillars have damaged 8,000 hectares of grassland in Usu and forced nearly 20,000 head of livestock and 50 herding families to leave.

It is the worst plague of caterpillars in three decades in the city. The Usu municipal government has fought the plague with pesticide.

"We expect all the caterpillars to be killed by this weekend," said Mu Chen, an official with the Xinjiang Regional Headquarters of Locust and Rodent Control.


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