assistant professor of biology, is the recipient of a NSF grant which will
enable him to hire a postdoc and undergraduate student to collaboratively
research behavior of the woolly bear caterpillar.
NSF Grant Expands Study of Self-Medicating Caterpillars
When a woolly bear caterpillar becomes infected
with a parasite, it can’t go to a pharmacy for medicine, so it does the next
best thing: It eats the leaves of medicinal plants.
This behavior and recognition for the need to self-medicate when ill is at
the heart of a new grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for a
proposal by Michael Singer, assistant professor of biology, titled
“Self-medication: function and mechanism in a woolly bear caterpillar.”
two-year, $314,267 grant will permit Singer to study in more detail this
prescient behavior by the woolly bear caterpillars, also known as Grammia
“All animals have immunological defenses, subject to modification by diet,”
Singer says. “Herbivorous animals may be especially prone to self-medicate
by ingesting pharmacologically active chemicals found in the plants they
eat. This project will allow me to investigate the means of self-medication
by the woolly bear caterpillar, and ultimately help us all better understand
the links in the behavior and ecology of wild animals to animal health.”
The grant allows Singer to continue a study he initiated a few years ago,
the results of which were published in the July 27, 2005 issue of the
esteemed scientific journal Nature.
Singer’s study will include distinct segments. It will begin with behavioral
experiments that will characterize the dietary choices of experimentally
parasitized caterpillars in relation to caterpillars without parasites. Then
experimentally parasitized caterpillars will be given different diets to
evaluate the role of specific diets in resistance against parasites.
Physiological experiments will evaluate the effects of these diets on the
caterpillar’s immune response to parasites.
In addition, to analyze the direct effects of caterpillar diet without the
immune system, the parasites will be grown in artificial diets that reflect
different caterpillar diets. Theory predicts that caterpillars employ two
distinct mechanisms of self-medication that vary in their severity of
negative side effects.
“We hope to generate some definitive findings by the end of the study,
The grant comes at a time when grant funding by the NSF has become extremely
competitive and difficult to obtain.
“That Mike has been successful in obtaining NSF funding indicates the very
high regard that Mike's colleagues across the country have for his research
and scholarship,” says Janice Naegele, professor and chair of biology. “This
recognition in the area of ecology and integrative organismal biology comes
early in his career and will have a positive impact on his upcoming case for
tenure and promotion at Wesleyan.”
Along with funding Singer’s research, the grant will also pay for a
post-doctoral research fellow. In addition, there is funding to hire an
undergraduate research assistant during each summer.
“This will allow a student to gain a high quality research experience along
with peers in the Hughes and Mellon summer research programs at Wesleyan,”
says Singer. “A postdoc will also enhance training of undergraduate and
graduate students working in my lab by spending more hands-on time with
students in the lab than I can provide as well as by offering a different
intellectual perspective than my own.”
By David Pesci, director of Media Relations