The pipevine swallowtail is highly poisonous since the caterpillars feed on plants in the genus Aristolochia. This particular genus has noxious defenses, which include aristolochic acids. The caterpillars retain these aristolochic acids in their diet and by the pupae and adult butterflies.
The pipevine swallowtail caterpillar can be recognized by its “horn” at the rear end of its body. The larva is purplish-black with a yellow-white stripe running along each side of the body. The chrysalis is long, thin, and green with a golden yellow patch on its back.
Aristolochic acids are highly toxic. They can cause kidney failure and are associated with the development of upper urogenital tract cancers, which include bladder cancer and renal pelvis cancer. The pipevine swallowtail is a butterfly that feeds on the pipevine plant (Aristolochia macrophylla).
The caterpillars are covered in extremely noxious chemicals and have even been known to kill birds that have eaten them. The poison they contain and secrete is aristolochic acid, and it’s not only retained from ingesting the plant as a larva, but glands also produce it in their skin. This means that even if one doesn’t eat them, touching them could result in some serious discomfort or worse.
This chemical compound is present in many species of Aristolochia, but its concentration can vary between plants and even among different parts of the same plant.
Interestingly enough, this poison was used medicinally by several cultures around the world for thousands of years to treat various ailments ranging from snakebites to menstrual cramps, but it was soon discovered that aristolochic acid is not only poisonous but also carcinogenic.
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Are Pipevine Swallowtail caterpillars poisonous to humans?
The Pipevine swallowtail (Battus philenor) has a rather interesting life history, to say the least. Their caterpillars feed on plants in the Aristolochiaceae family, which includes the pipevine and birthwort plants. The problem is that these plants are very toxic to most animals, including humans. However, the larvae of the pipevine butterfly possess an enzyme that detoxifies their food source.
All parts of the pipevine plant, including the seed pods, are toxic to humans. This creates a win-win situation because it deters the appetite of the most voracious bird, the robin while providing a nice and quick energy boost for the pipevine. Yet the groundhogs can’t get enough of it, of course.
Pipevine is dioecious, meaning there are male and female plants. A single female plant can produce hundreds of thousands of seeds! When mature, these seeds resemble tiny black fishhooks and are distributed by birds who ingest them and later defecate them in other areas near their roosting site. The seeds will germinate in fall or spring once they have been scarified by passing through a bird’s digestive system.
In conclusion, swallowtail larvae are poisonous, but only to specific types of animals. Humans do not have the enzymes in their bodies that can break down and process the particular toxins that are present in swallowtail caterpillars. This goes for almost all insects, snails, worms, and all other creatures which we humans eat in large quantities.