IntroductionHave you ever wondered how predators, like wolves, lions, and hawks, are able to find their prey? And what can an animal do to stay off of a hunter's menu? To survive, some animals use camouflage so they can better blend in with their surroundings. In this science activity, you will be the hungry predator and you will hunt for M&M's candies. But it may not be as easy as it sounds — some of your prey will be camouflaged by their habitat. Will they be able to avoid your grasp? To find out, work up an appetite and go hunting for some candy!
- Plain M&M's candies (10 of each color). One king size (3.14 oz) or larger package is needed
- Skittles (at least 60 of each color). One 16-oz. package or larger is needed.
- Plastic bags (6)
- Metal pie tin or sturdy paper plate
- Timer or stopwatch
- Volunteer predators (kids) who like to eat M&M's (2–4)
- Everyone should wash their hands so that the candies can stay germ-free and be enjoyed later.
- Count and place 10 M&M's of each color into a plastic bag. This means you should have a plastic bag with 10 yellow, 10 blue, 10 green, 10 brown, 10 red, and 10 orange M&M's candies in it (making a total of 60 candies).
- Count and place 60 Skittles of each color into their own bags (making five separate bags). This means you should have one plastic bag with 60 orange Skittles, one with 60 yellow candies, one with 60 green candies, one with 60 red candies, and one with 60 purple candies. If you are short on time, you can skip preparing one or two of these bags.
- Explain to your pack of two to four volunteer "predators" that they 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. Explain that they will have 20 seconds to use their beak to quickly pick up M&M's and quickly put them in their other hand. To encourage the volunteers to be fast, tell them that when they are done with the activity, they can eat the same number of candies as they picked up. But they should not eat the candies until you are all done with the activity.
- Also tell the volunteers that they should avoid picking up any Skittles candies because Skittles make the M&M's birds sick. The M&M's are their prey, and the Skittles represent the habitat that the M&M's live in.How do you think the Skittles habitat will work to camouflage the different colored M&M's prey?
- After explaining these rules, pour one prepared bag of Skittles into a metal pie tin or sturdy paper plate. Mix in the prepared bag of M&M's. Put the pie tin in the middle of your group of M&M's birds. Make sure everyone can reach the pie tin. Which M&M's are the best camouflaged in your pie tin?
- Set your timer for 20 seconds. Say "Go!" and start the timer. When the timer beeps, make sure everyone stops picking up M&M's.
- Count the number of each M&M's color that each person collected. Also count any Skittles that were picked up.Which M&M color was the least-picked one? What do you think this has to do with camouflage?
- Put all of the M&M's back in the bag you prepared them in (including M&M's that people picked). Take away the Skittles you used for the habitat (by pouring them off the pie tin).
- Repeat the 20-second M&M hunt with the other prepared bags of Skittles until you have tested each Skittles habitat (separately) with the M&M's.For each Skittles habitat, which M&M color was the least-picked one? Can you explain what this has to do with camouflage?
At a glance, it is difficult to tell M&M's and Skittles candies apart. Skittles are less flat than M&M's, but their yellow, green, red, and orange colors are very similar. This is why if you tell someone to avoid picking a certain color Skittles (the habitat color), then, if they are picking the candies quickly, they are less likely to pick M&M's that are the same color as those Skittles. Those M&M's "prey" are being camouflaged by the same-colored (and similarly shaped) Skittles habitat. Consequently, in the yellow Skittles habitat, the yellow M&M's should have been picked less often than any other M&M's candy, and the same goes for the green, red, and orange Skittles habitats — the same-colored M&M's should have been picked the least often. Also, since purple Skittles are very similar in color to brown M&M's, then brown M&M's should have been the color least often picked in the purple Skittles habitat. Blue M&M's should have been picked at about the same rate in each habitat since there are no Skittles that are very close in color.
Nature can be brutal. In the animal world, if you are not a hunter, then you are likely being hunted. What do animals do to avoid being eaten? Some animals develop defense mechanisms (like porcupine quills or the armor of an armadillo), gross tastes on their bodies, or even poisonous mucus coatings. This pattern of animals developing strategies to survive is called adaptation, and it is a mechanism for evolution.
A common way that animals can avoid being eaten by a predator is by using an adaptation called camouflage. Camouflage is a set of colorings or markings on an animal that help it to blend in with its surroundings, or habitat, and increase its chance for survival. Each animal needs to adapt to a unique habitat, and animals adapt in all kinds of interesting ways using camouflage. For example, katydids are insects that usually live in leafy trees, and many have adapted to their habitat by having a green body shaped like a leaf. Chameleons, on the other hand, change habitats often in the colorful jungle and have adapted a way of changing their skin to match the environment right around them.
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For Further Exploration
- Adaptation and evolution happen over several generations. Try testing this by picking one colored Skittles habitat and mixing your prepared bag of M&M's candies with it in the pie tin. After a 20-second round of M&M predation, as described in this activity, double the number of M&M's that are left by adding a colored M&M to match the color of each remaining M&M's candy. For instance, if there are four red and two brown M&M's, then add four more red and two more brown M&M's. Then repeat another round of predation. How many rounds does it take to remove all of the M&M's of one color?
- Find pictures of different camouflaged animals, such as a katydid that looks like a leaf on a tree branch, or a chameleon that is blending in with its surroundings. After finding several pictures of different camouflaged animals, show them to some volunteers and time how long it takes the volunteers to spot each animal. Do some camouflage techniques work better than others, making volunteers take longer to spot the animal?
- You could try repeating this activity using different types of candy. How easy is it for M&M's birds 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 Corns?