“Are caterpillars ticklish?”

When my husband, a Harvard researcher, heard this question, he laughed for about five minutes before asking how anyone could possibly figure it out. What does ticklish mean for a caterpillar, anyway? When I tickled my daughter, she laughed and squirmed away. My husband did as well. Seemed reasonable to expect caterpillars to do the same thing. But…

“Can caterpillars laugh?” my daughter asked. And even if they could laugh, my husband pointed out, how would we know? We can’t hear them and don’t have the right equipment to detect the minute sound waves tiny little caterpillar giggles would generate.

Would squirming away be sufficient evidence of ticklishness without the accompanying proof of laugh? My daughter said yes, so the experiment was on.

Our Working Hypothesis:
Caterpillars are ticklish.

What We Needed:
Capturing a caterpillar was such a trivial problem, it was hardly worth thinking about. After all, it’s spring. All I had to do was park the car under a tree for about 5 minutes to get plenty of test subjects.

Slightly more difficult was the question of how to tickle the caterpillars. Fingers were clearly out due to the caterpillars’ mushability (which naturally led to a series of questions about why caterpillar insides are so mushy).

My daughter suggested holding our hands out very steadily and letting the caterpillars crawl onto them. I thought that would be an excellent way to see if the caterpillars could tickle us, but might tell us a bit less about the ticklishness of the caterpillars themselves.

I suggested tickling the caterpillars with a feather to see what they did. My daughter suggested tickling them with leaves and flowers. We decided to try all of them.

Sadly, it started to rain, so our experiment would have to wait until the next day.

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About Shala Howell

I spent two decades helping companies like Bell Labs, Juniper Networks, and a genetic testing company that was later acquired by CVS translate some of the world’s most complicated concepts into actionable, understandable English. Now I'm working on a much harder problem -- fostering children’s curiosity and engagement in the scientific, artistic, and linguistic world that surrounds them. The first book in my Caterpickles Parenting Series, What’s That, Mom?, focuses on how to use public art to nurture children’s curiosity in the world around them. My next book will focus on science, and how parents without a science degree can answer their curious child's questions without enrolling in a college level refresher course. In the meantime, you can find me blogging about life with a very curious Eleven-Year-Old at Caterpickles.com, chatting about books and the writing life at BostonWriters.blog, and tweeting about books, writing, science, & things that make me smile at @shalahowell.
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