What’s for dinner? Do all caterpillars like the same food?


  • Animals make different choices, and the way they behave can have a big impact on the species with which they interact. Scientists study why different species of animals, such as caterpillars, eat different plants. One of the reasons caterpillar species prefer different plants is because of their chemistry. Scientists at MU brought caterpillars into the lab in order to investigate if caterpillars behave differently and why.
  • This Data Nugget engages students in quantifying caterpillar behavior and the chemical make-up of leaves. The students will investigate how caterpillars behave differently and what role chemistry plays in the decisions that they make. Students will explain how different species of caterpillars eat leaves of different ages. They will investigate how leaves of different ages vary in their chemistry. Finally, they will make inferences on the potential relationship between leaf chemistry and caterpillar behavior.

Time Requirement:

  • This lesson is designed to extend over several class periods.
  • During the first period, students will investigate how caterpillar behavior relates to the age of the leaves they eat.
  • During the second period, students will explore the chemical make-up of the leaves that the caterpillars eat and will make inferences as to how chemistry affects caterpillar behavior.

Information about the Author:

  • Clayton Coffman is graduate student in the Plant Biology and Genetics Program working in the Schultz-Appel Chemical Ecology Lab.
  • For his PhD research Clayton is studying how plants use chemical defenses to modify the behavior of the caterpillars that eat them.

Related Resources:

  • To learn more about the science of caterpillars and plant chemistry, check out the video Clayton created for his 4th Grade students at Benton Elementary.
  1. Teacher Guide
  2. Student Worksheet
  3. Video: Crazy Caterpillar Science