Hospital keeps pigeons away, ends up with poisonous caterpillars

An initiative to cut the number of birds gathering in trees at the Texas Medical Center campus in Houston has had an accidental side effect: It's created a safe space for a population of venomous caterpillars to grow unrestrained, according to a Newsweek report.

The hospital put up nets on the oak trees lining its sidewalks to prevent disease-carrying grackles and pigeons from gathering. The initiative worked, but a population of a venomous caterpillars has grown rapidly without the birds there to eat them.

The caterpillars, known as Megalopyge opercularis or more commonly, "asps," are the most poisonous species of caterpillar found in North America. Brushing against one can cause intense, throbbing pain that spreads through the body, often resulting in headaches and vomiting.

A study conducted by Houston-based Rice University researchers and published in Biology Letters shows that the caterpillars were 7,300 percent more prevalent on the trees with nets compared to the trees without nets on the Texas Medical Center campus.

"There are a lot of people that congregate in the green spaces of TMC [Texas Medical Center]. It becomes this scenario of what's worse — bird guano or venomous asps — and is there a happy medium?" said study leader Glen Hood, PhD, a former post-doctoral fellow at Rice University and current research assistant professor at Wayne State University in Detroit.

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