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Caterpillar Table Manners

Do caterpillars have table manners? Find out on this Moment of Science.

Orange spicebush swallowtail caterpillar

Photo: Michael Hodge (flickr)

Caterpillars like this spicebush swallowtail use a variety of "table manners" to avoid being eaten

Eating is serious business for caterpillars, and many of them approach it with the gusto you might expect, chewing indiscriminately through the juicy leaves. However, some caterpillars have table manners that would make Miss Manners proud.

Caterpillars use table manners to avoid being eaten. For many caterpillars, camouflage is the first and only line of defense against hungry birds. Unfortunately, the best camouflage in the world won’t help if you advertise your presence with a wide swath of destruction. Birds would only need to look for half eaten leaves to find a caterpillar snack.

Different species of caterpillars have evolved a wide range of table manners to help them avoid detection. One species rolls itself up inside the leaf, then eats it from the inside out. Others eat only at night, then hide all day on the opposite side of the trunk from the damaged leaves. Another species hides under the leaf, then eats a thin layer off one side, then a thin layer off the other, gradually paring the leaf down so it just looks like an uneaten, younger leaf. This would be like nibbling carefully at a Big Mac until it exactly resembled a junior hamburger.

Another species yet, carves the leaf into life-sized cut-out models of itself, like a string of paper dolls. Birds peck at these mock caterpillars while the real caterpillar eats in peace.

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