Clay Caterpillar Whodunit: A Customizable Method for Studying Predator-Prey Interactions in the Field

By Curtis, Rachel; Klemens, Jeffrey A. et al. | The American Biology Teacher, January 2013 | Go to article overview

Clay Caterpillar Whodunit: A Customizable Method for Studying Predator-Prey Interactions in the Field


Curtis, Rachel, Klemens, Jeffrey A., Agosta, Salvatore J., Bartlow, Andrew W., Wood, Steve, Carlson, Jason A., Stratford, Jeffrey A., Steele, Michael A., The American Biology Teacher


High school classes can benefit tremendously from the inclusion of experiments that allow students to build a solid understanding of the scientific process. Hands-on experiments reinforce topics learned in the classroom by introducing students to the scientific process and further engaging them in critical thinking. In the field of biology, such experiments are frequently limited to those that can be carried out on a small scale in a classroom setting, which often limits the exposure of students to ecological questions and hypotheses. Field experiments offer students the chance to be actively involved in ecological research, developing and implementing experiments to test one or multiple hypotheses. However, constraints of time, funds, adequate resources, and suitable field sites may restrict field activities from being incorporated into high school courses as frequently as teachers would like. The simple methods and flexibility of the experiment presented here facilitate the inclusion of variations of this experiment into the high school science experience. We expect that educators using this experiment will be able to expose their students to the following science skills:

* Understanding the components of a scientific inquiry

* Formulating and justifying hypotheses

* Designing experiments to test specific hypotheses

* Organizing and analyzing data to evaluate hypotheses

* Presenting research results

Predator-prey interaction is a fundamental concept in ecology and one that many students intuitively grasp from a young age. Furthermore, it is an ecological interaction that many students find interesting and exciting. From a conceptual viewpoint, predator-prey interactions are an important bridge between population ecology (the fluctuations in population size of a particular species in time and space) and community ecology (the interactions among species). Hands-on demonstrations of predation are difficult in the classroom or laboratory setting, and so the topic is often presented through the use of a few standard examples, such as the classic example of population cycles in the Canadian lynx and snowshoe hare (as presented in Odum, 1953, and now ubiquitous in introductory biology textbooks), or through the use of computer simulations such as Populus (Alstad, 2007).

We describe an experimental system using clay models of caterpillars that allows students to study predator-prey interactions in the field. The basic premise of the study is that the soft clay of the models will record predation attempts by wild predators in the form of distinct marks left on the model. The students place models in the field and return after some period (days to weeks) to collect them. Students then collect data regarding the rate of predation on the models and (in many cases) the identity of the predator based on the marks left in the clay.

Clay models offer a number of possibilities to study predation. Because clay is weather resistant and retains marks incurred during a predation attempt (Brodie, 1993), using clay models to represent prey items can serve as a valuable tool when teaching students how prey characteristics affect predation rates. Such models have been used to determine predation on model frogs (Saporito et al., 2007), snakes (Brodie, 1993), salamanders (Kuchta, 2005), eggs (Lewis et al., 2009), and caterpillars (Howe et al., 2009; Remmel & Tammaru, 2011).

These studies included investigations of the importance of prey size, habitat, distance from predators, mimicry, and aposematism (warning coloration) on the rate of predation on the model organisms.

Clay caterpillars are an easy system for teachers to use. There is no wrangling of live animals, and because marks recorded in clay will persist until the model is collected from the field, the time frame for observing predation events can be modified to fit the instructors schedule. …

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