Friday Cat-erpillar Blogging: Trail Blazing

Tent caterpillars live as groups in nests constructed from silk. A group of tent caterpillars can construct a nest of webbing that provides more protection than a single caterpillar on its own can produce. Tent caterpillars lounge in their nest all day when predators such as birds are about and emerge at night to feed. As dawn approaches, the caterpillars must find their way back to their nest. Caterpillars have poor vision and must rely on other means to find their way home.

Tent caterpillars deposit silk threads as they travel away from the nest. They can simply follow the thread when they need to return home. Ftizgerald and Edgerly* reported that tent caterpillars mark their silk trails with chemicals. When a caterpillar returns to its nest from a particularly good food source, it lowers the last segment of its abdomen onto the silk thread and deposits a chemical odor. Trails that lead to the best food receive the most chemical reinforcement. When a caterpillar leaves its nest the next morining, it can return to a prime feeding site. The scent allows the caterpillar to find food more quickly and spend more time feeding and less time searching.

Eastern Tent Caterpillar


*Fitzgerald and Edgerly, SITE OF SECRETION OF THE TRAIL MARKER OF THE EASTERN TENT CATERPILLAR. JOURNAL OF CHEMICAL ECOLOGY. Volume 8, Number 1 (1982), 31-39, DOI: 10.1007/BF00984003

About jjneal

Jonathan Neal is an Associate Professor of Entomology at Purdue University and author of the textbook, Living With Insects (2010). This blog is a forum to communicate about the intersection of insects with people and policy. This is a personal blog. The opinions and materials posted here are those of the author and are in no way connected with those of my employer.
This entry was posted in behavior, by jjneal, Caterpillar Blogging, Environment. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Friday Cat-erpillar Blogging: Trail Blazing

  1. Ashley Ayres says:

    I didn’t know caterpillars had this capability. It’s cool that they developed a short method for finding food. They literally have to follow their own scented trail in order to find food. It’s very smart, and efficient. I rarely come in contact with caterpillar, so it’s interesting to read an article about an Eastern Tent Caterpillar.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I didn’t know caterpillars had poor vision and rely on their silk trails with chemicals to get back home. These trails also help the caterpillar find it’s food for next day meals. Thought this was interesting because i am doing the caterpillar project and the more information about it always helps.

  3. Anonymous says:

    This blog was very interesting to me because I was not aware that caterpillars primarily roamed at night for protection. It is very smart on their part using their silk to construct nests with other caterpillars to survive attacks from birds during the day. Furthermore, I find it fascinating that due to their poor vision they make a trail of silk from their nest as a means to navigate back when they stray from their home.

  4. Anonymous says:

    This is all new information to me. I do find it incredibly interesting that caterpillars do have poor vision, and it’s fascinating to see how they’ve adapted to their environments over the years. It’s always neat to see how certain animals adapt to finding their “homes” and their environment in other ways besides just looking at the directions. As I observe my caterpillar for the insect project, I noticed that he’s adapted to the different sizes of his environment, and can get around smoothly.

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