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Budding Scientist Projects: Caterpillar Olympics

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Our "caterpillar Olympics" course

My parents have an old birch tree in their backyard in Western Massachusetts. Each August, we watch a new generation of black-and-white hickory tussock moth caterpillars make its way down from the tree and toward the side of our house to weave cocoons. Last summer, there were so many of these fluffy creatures that they hung down from the trees on their lines of silk like decorations.

This year, we arrived at my parents’ place too early to witness the great migration from birch tree to house siding. But we were lucky enough to find one  caterpillar and catch it. In the past, we’ve kept several of them in pickle jars – with air holes punched in the lid – and watched as they wove cocoons and turned into moths, then released them. This year, we’re not here long enough to observe the full lifecycle, so we decided to build the caterpillar its own “Olympic park,” as my 7-year-old daughter calls it, and observe it climbing around. We used the inside of a box top, and built a slide, a seesaw, a tunnel, a ladder, a jungle gym, a bed and other “equipment” out of paper. We’ve enjoyed watching the caterpillar’s agility as it makes its way around the course, tossing and waving its head from side to side once it reaches the top of a structure, perhaps searching for a higher tree branch to cling on to. (Warning: Some people are allergic to the hairs on these caterpillars and can develop a rash. We haven’t had this problem, but to stay safe you may want to handle your caterpillars using small sticks or twigs)

Below is a video of our caterpillar on the slide.
Credits: Anna Kuchment

About the Author: Anna Kuchment is a Contributing Editor at Scientific American and a staff science writer at The Dallas Morning News. She was previously a reporter, writer and editor with Newsweek magazine. She is also author of “The Forgotten Cure,” about bacteriophage viruses and their potential as weapons against antibiotic resistance. Follow on Twitter @akuchment.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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