Diversity, function, and evolution of caterpillar attachment devices

Lead Research Organisation: University of Cambridge
Department Name: Zoology


In my research, I aim to combine basic physiological, ecological and molecular approaches to investigate the evolution of organisms. In particular, I would like to find out how developmental constraints for insect attachment devices, their biomechanical function on plant surfaces, and their ecological context have shaped the evolution of these structures. I have been particularly interested in the larvae of Lepidoptera: despite their worldwide importance as herbivores, the detailed mechanisms of how caterpillars attach to their host plants using their unusually diverse prolegs as well as silk threads are still unclear. I aim to explore the constraints and driving factors of insect biomechanical trait evolution by investigating how proleg function and silk use correlate with ecology, how prolegs have evolved across the Lepidoptera, and by gathering evidence from developmental genetics on whether proleg and thoracic leg development are coupled. A detailed understanding of caterpillar attachment mechanisms is also important in the context of herbivory and plant defences as well as biomimetics: knowledge of plant-proleg interactions will help to develop physical (pesticide-free) methods for crop defense while caterpillar silk represents an attachment-specialised counterpart to more well-understood spider silks.

Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
BB/M011194/1 01/10/2015 30/09/2023
1943787 Studentship BB/M011194/1 01/10/2017 01/04/2022 Simon Chen
Description COB travel grants
Amount £500 (GBP)
Organisation Company of Biologists 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 05/2018 
End 06/2018
Description Cambridge Gravity travel awards
Amount £500 (GBP)
Organisation Cambridge Gravity 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 07/2019 
End 07/2019
Description DAAD RISE Worldwide funds to host a German undergraduate student for a research internship
Amount € 1,600 (EUR)
Organisation German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) 
Sector Academic/University
Country United States
Start 08/2020 
End 10/2020
Description Graduate Tutor's Research Fund
Amount £150 (GBP)
Organisation University of Cambridge 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 08/2019 
End 09/2019
Description Collaboration with Pugno lab for measuring material properties of several types of caterpillar silk (University of Trento, Italy) 
Organisation University of Trento
Country Italy 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Knowledge of certain model and non-model organisms, sample collection from these organisms, understanding of relevant ecological and physiological influences on silk production.
Collaborator Contribution Hosting in lab/university facilities and acces to certain advanced experimental equipment, better understanding of how silk material characteristics are most accurately and comprehensively measured.
Impact Currently still in data collection stage. Have recruited undergraduate students for research (so far 2 for thesis work, 1 as intern). Multi-disciplinary: engineering, physiology, ecology.
Start Year 2019
Description Public display during Cambridge Science festival (Department of Zoology "Just Bugs" event) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an open day or visit at my research institution
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact At this event, members of the Department of Zoology working with insects showed study animals, labs, and posters/discussion material with opportunities for hands-on experiences and discussion/Q&A. My contribution was to show insect attachment devices in action, visualising contacts of the specialised attachment pads used for attachment and showing attachment behaviours.
3 groups of ca. 20 people visited this event.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019