Murder mystery


By Eugenie Samuel Caterpillars may be to blame for concentrating a fungal toxin linked to a mysterious spate of thoroughbred foal deaths in Kentucky. About 500 highly valuable foals have died or been miscarried since the start of May. Initial tests suggested that levels of the fungal toxin zearalenone were high in samples of hay and pasture collected from Kentucky fields. Zearalenone it is known to mimic estrogen, which could explain why it would adversely affect pregnancies without making a large difference to other horses. But a repeat analysis of the samples again at the end of last week, University of Kentucky scientists found they were free of the toxin after all. Fortunately a separate line of inquiry is now bearing fruit. Anecdotal evidence from vets and farmers has linked affected farms to cherry trees, which are hosting a large crop of Eastern Tent caterpillars this year. On Tuesday night, UK scientists said there were high levels in zearalenone in the caterpillars and their excrement. They do not know how the caterpillars or their excrement might have got into the horses. “Things are changing every day,” a spokesman for the investigation team told New Scientist. During large infestations, Eastern Tent caterpillars migrate from their preferred home, wild cherry trees,
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