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M&M Survival Challenge

Abstract

In the wild there are two types of animals: the hunters and the hunted. A good predator is always on the prowl for fresh prey. What can an animal do to stay off of the menu? Some animals have evolved to use a variety of camouflage tactics so they can fool their predators and increase their chances of survival. In this science project, you will be the hungry predator hunting for M&M® prey. But it may not be as easy as it sounds — some of your prey will be camouflaged. Will they be able to avoid your grasp? To find out, work up that appetite and go hunting!

Summary

Areas of Science
Difficulty
 
Time Required
Very Short (≤ 1 day)
Prerequisites
None
Material Availability
Readily Available
Cost
Very Low (under $20)
Safety
No hazards
Credits
Svenja Lohner, PhD, Teisha Rowland, PhD, Sandra Slutz, PhD, and Sara Agee, PhD, Science Buddies
M&M® and Skittles® are federally registered trademarks of Mars, Incorporated.
Candy Camouflage

Objective

Hunt for M&M prey and find out if camouflage increases an animals chances of survival.

Introduction

Nature can be brutal. The harsh reality is that if you are not a hunter, then you are being hunted, also known as the prey. What do animals do to avoid being eaten? Some animals develop defense mechanisms, like porcupine quills or the plated armor of an armadillo. Other animals develop gross tastes on their bodies, or poisonous mucus coatings.

This pattern of animals developing strategies to survive is called adaptation, and it is a mechanism for evolution. You may have heard the famous phrase "survival of the fittest," which Charles Darwin used to describe this natural phenomenon. In order to survive in nature, you need to be fit, and fitting in to your environment is very important to avoid being eaten!

The most common way that animals can avoid being eaten by a predator is by an adaptation called camouflage. Camouflage is a set of colorings or markings on an animal that help it to blend in with the surroundings and increase its chance for survival. The surrounding environment that the animal hides in is called the habitat, or the place where the animal lives.

Each animal needs to adapt to a unique habitat, and animals adapt in all kinds of interesting ways using camouflage. There are four types of camouflage. The first type of camouflage is concealing coloration. Animals with concealing coloration have colors and patterns that match where they live. For example, brown forest animals are hard to see because they match the browns of the tree trunks and ground. Arctic animals with concealing coloration are white to match the Arctic snow (Figure 1). Some animals, like chameleons, can even change their skin color to better match the background.

Examples of artic fox and long-eared owl animals concealing coloration
Figure 1. The arctic fox and long-eared owl use concealing coloration to blend into their habitat.

Disruptive coloration is another type of camouflage. Animals with disruptive coloration have bold marks or patterns on their bodies. Two examples of disruptive coloration are leopard spots and the black-and-white striped pattern of zebras (Figure 2). Stripes and spots make it difficult to see an animal's shape. The predator becomes confused about where the animal begins and ends. This type of camouflage is seen in animals that group together in a herd, like zebras. All the zebra stripes blend together, making the pack look like one large striped blob. This makes it very hard for a predator to find and attack just one zebra.

Examples of spots and stripes that create disruptive coloration to confuse predators
Figure 2. Disruptive coloring, like spots and stripes, create confusion for predators.

Disguise is a third type of camouflage. Animals that disguise themselves have bodies that look like something else in the environment. This allows the animal to hide in plain sight. Walking stick and leaf insects are two examples of animals that have this type of camouflage (Figure 3). When sitting still, walking sticks look like twigs. Predators can still see them, but they mistake them for a stick instead of a tasty insect. So, the predators ignore them. The same is true for leaf insects, which look like tree leaves.

Examples of walking sticks and leaf insects that disguise themselves to look like natural objects in the environment
Figure 3. Walking sticks and leaf insects disguise themselves as natural objects in their environments.

The fourth type of camouflage is mimicry. Animals that use mimicry look like other animals that taste bad or are dangerous or poisonous. Viceroy butterflies are an example of an animal that has evolved mimicry (Figure 4, left). Their wing color and pattern look almost exactly like Monarch butterfly wings. Since Monarch butterflies are poisonous and taste bad to many predators, predators avoid eating any animals that look like them. Other animals use mimicry to look larger than they really are. Several moths and butterflies have designs on their wings that look like the eyes of larger animals. For example, the owl butterfly has big round spots on its wings. When the wings are spread, these spots look like owl eyes. Predators are fooled into thinking they are looking at an owl’s face instead of a butterfly. So, they leave the butterfly alone.

Examples of a Viceroy butterfly that mimics the Monarch butterfly an an owl butterfly that use mimicry to look like an owl's eyes
Figure 4. The Viceroy butterfly (left) mimics the color and pattern of a Monarch butterfly (middle). The spots on an owl butterfly’s wings mimic owl eyes (right).

In this science project, you will test how mimicry works by using M&M and Skittles candies as your prey. You will hunt for the M&M animals but at the same time have to avoid the poisonous Skittles animals. Will the camouflaged M&M's have a better chance of survival?

Terms and Concepts

Bibliography

For help creating graphs, try this website:

  • National Center for Education Statistics, (n.d.). Create a Graph. Retrieved June 25, 2020.

Materials and Equipment

Experimental Procedure

  1. First, prepare your Skittles animals. Do this by counting and placing 10 Skittles of a single color in a bag. Repeat for each color. In the end you will have 5 bags — each with just one color of Skittles. The Skittles represent animals that are poinsonous to the predator.
    1. This means you should have one plastic bag with 10 orange Skittles, one bag with 10 yellow Skittles, one with 10 green Skittles, one with 10 red Skittles, and one with 10 purple Skittles.
  2. Next, you will need to prepare a mixed group of "prey." Do this by counting and placing 10 M&M's of each color into a plastic bag. The M&M's represent the animals that the predator likes to eat.
    1. This means you should have one plastic bag with 10 yellow, 10 blue, 10 green, 10 brown, 10 red, and 10 orange M&M's candies in it.
  3. Gather together a pack of 2-4 volunteer "predators." This can be anybody who likes to eat M&M's: a friend, brother, sister, mom, dad, grandparent, etc.
  4. Explain the rules of the game to your predators as follows:
    1. The volunteers should pretend to be M&M's birds. They should make a "beak" using their pointer finger and thumb for collecting M&M's candies, as shown in Figure 5.
    2. You will set a timer (or watch a stopwatch) for 20 seconds. During those 20 seconds, the volunteers will use their beak to quickly pick up M&M's and quickly put them in their other hand.
      1. To encourage the volunteers to be fast, tell them that when they are done with the experiment, they can eat the same number of candies as they picked up. (But they should not eat any candies until you are all done testing.)
    3. Tell the volunteers that they should avoid picking up any Skittles candies because Skittles make the M&M's birds sick. Remember, the Skittles represent poisonous animals.
  5. After explaining the rules, pour the prepared bag of M&M's into a metal pie tin or sturdy plate. Pick one color of the prepared Skittles and mix them with the M&M's on the plate. Now you have a plate with M&M's prey mixed with poisonous animals that the predator doesn't like to eat. If you look at the mixture closely, you will notice that some of the M&M's animals are now camouflaged by mimicy. They have the same color and shape as the poisonous Skittles animals. Will that affect their chances of survival? To find out, put the plate in the middle of your group of M&M's birds and start the prey hunting. Make sure everyone can reach the plate.
  6. Set your timer for 20 seconds.
  7. Say, Go! and start the timer. Once the timer starts, the volunteers have to start hunting for the M&M's animals. When the timer beeps, everyone should stop picking up M&M's.
A hand picks up M&M candies off of a plate
Figure 5. Ask your volunteers to make a "beak," using their pointer finger and thumb and collect as many M&M's as they can in 20 seconds.
  1. Count the number of each M&M's color that each person collected. Record the numbers in a data table in your lab notebook, like Table 1. If any volunteer collected any Skittles, put the number of Skittles they collected in the bottom row of their column, the one labeled "Skittles." Also, re-emphasize that Skittles make the M&M's birds sick and should be avoided.
    1. Make sure to record the data for the correct Skittle color. For example, if you used orange Skittles as the poisonous animals, record your data in the columns that say "Orange Skittles" at the top.
  Poisonous Animal
 Orange Skittles Yellow SkittlesGreen Skittles Red SkittlesPurple Skittles
Candies Collected Volunteer 1Volunteer 2Volunteer 3, etc. Vol. 1 Vol. 2, etc. Vol. 1 Vol. 2, etc. Vol. 1 Vol. 2, etc. Vol. 1 Vol. 2, etc.
Yellow M&M's             
Blue M&M's             
Green M&M's             
Brown M&M's             
Red M&M's             
Orange M&M's             
Skittles             

Table 1. In your lab notebook, make a data table like this one to record your data. You should have a row for each M&M's color, as well as a row for Skittles (one row for all of the colors). Make a column for each Skittles color, as shown here. Within the Skittles' column, also include a column for each volunteer. ("Volunteer" has been abbreviated as "Vol." in some places here.)
  1. Once you are done counting the candies, put the M&M's back in the bag you prepared them in. This includes the M&M's that people picked, as well as the M&M's that were still in the metal tin. Your bag should now be like you prepared it in step 1.
  2. Take away the Skittles you used for the poisonous animals (by pouring them off the pie tin).
  3. Repeat steps 5-10 for all of the other prepared bags of Skittles until you have tested each Skittles color.
    1. When you are all done testing, you can let the volunteers eat the candies if they want to. They can eat the same number of candies as they picked up, if you want to do it that way.
  4. Add up the total number of each M&M's color that the volunteers picked for each Skittles color. Record your data in a data table in your lab notebook like Table 2.
  Poisonous Animal
Candies Collected Orange Skittles Yellow SkittlesGreen Skittles Red SkittlesPurple Skittles
Yellow M&M's      
Blue M&M's      
Green M&M's      
Brown M&M's      
Red M&M's      
Orange M&M's      
Skittles      

Table 2. In your lab notebook, make a data table like this one and write down the total number of each M&M's color (and Skittles) that the volunteers picked for each Skittles color.
  1. Using the numbers from your data table that is like Table 2, make a bar graph of how many of each color M&M's was picked for each Skittles color.
    1. You can make a graph by hand or use a website like Create a Graph to make a graph on the computer and print it.
    2. Put each Skittles color on the x-axis (the horizontal axis going across), such as "Green Skittles," "Purple Skittles," etc. Put the number of each M&M's color collected on the y-axis (the vertical axis going up and down). Make a bar for each M&M's color (and any Skittles collected).
      1. Tip: Each Skittles color labeled on the x-axis should have seven bars for it, one for each of the six M&M's colors and one for any Skittles collected.
      2. If you want, you can make a separate graph for each Skittles color. If you do this you should end up with five graphs, one for each Skittles color.
  2. Look at your graph(s) and analyze your results.
    1. Do you notice any interesting patterns between the color of the Skittles and the color of the M&M's that were picked?
    2. Based on your data, do you think mimicry is a good camouflage tactic? Why or why not?
    3. How do you think this same survival strategy would work in the wild?
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Ask an Expert

Do you have specific questions about your science project? Our team of volunteer scientists can help. Our Experts won't do the work for you, but they will make suggestions, offer guidance, and help you troubleshoot.

Variations

  • In the wild, adaptation and evolution happen over several generations. There is a way to test this phenomenon with the M&M science project. Pick one Skittles color and randomly put the contents of an entire package of M&M's on it. After a round of predation, as was described in the science project, double the number of M&M's that are left by adding a colored M&M to match the color of each M&M that is left. For instance, if there are 4 red and 2 brown M&M's left, then add 4 more red and 2 more brown M&M's. Then repeat another round of predation. How many rounds does it take to get all the same colored M&M's?
  • Do some research on how different animals use camouflage. What types of things do animals try to look like? Do some animals try to look like other animals? Do some predators use camouflage too? Think of a way to investigate how effective different types of camouflage are. For example, you could have volunteers try to spot different camouflaged animals in pictures, like the katydid in Figure 1 in the Background, and time how long it takes for them to spot the animal. Do some camouflage techniques work better than others?
  • Different animals have adapted to different environments and habitats. Take a trip to your local zoo and bring your lab notebook. Write down and draw pictures of any special adaptations you observe. Do animals in the zoo use camouflage? Do the zookeepers do a good job of creating natural habitats? How do you think that the adaptations of zoo animals work in the wild? Do some kinds of animals have more adaptations than others?
  • You could repeat this experiment but use different types of candy. How easy is it for M&M's hunters to catch their prey when the habitat is made using candies of a different shape, such as Nerds candies, or candies that are both different in shape and multi-colored, like candy corn? How effectively can the M&M's camouflage?

Careers

If you like this project, you might enjoy exploring these related careers:

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Life is all around us, in beauty and abundance, and the people who introduce students to how life forms live and interact are biology teachers. Their work helps develop the next generation of doctors, nurses, life scientists, and engineers. Their enthusiasm and appreciation for all life helps students understand their own bodies, and how life forms are all connected to each other and to their environments. Read more

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MLA Style

Science Buddies Staff. "M&M Survival Challenge." Science Buddies, 4 Oct. 2022, https://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project-ideas/Zoo_p012/zoology/mms-survival-challenge-camouflage. Accessed 30 Nov. 2022.

APA Style

Science Buddies Staff. (2022, October 4). M&M Survival Challenge. Retrieved from https://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project-ideas/Zoo_p012/zoology/mms-survival-challenge-camouflage


Last edit date: 2022-10-04
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