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Science Fair Projects with Animals: Part II – Animals WITHOUT Backbones

Posted by on March 19, 2012

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Examples of animals without backbones include the animals that made these shells

Most kids love animals, so it is natural that they may want to do a science fair project focused on them. However, most science fairs have strict rules governing the types of experiments that can and can NOT be done with animals. It is important that you understand these rules and complete all necessary paperwork before starting any project (google and check the ISEF science fair rules).

Observational studies on animals with backbones are allowed – see my last post. Some experiments on animals without backbones are also allowed.

Animals that do not have backbones include:

ARTHROPODS such as: spiders and insects – ants, moths, crickets, beetles, lady bugs, butterflies, dragon flies, lightning bugs, centipedes, cockroaches, mosquitoes, fruit flies; and the crustaceans – hermit crabs, fiddler crabs, blue crabs, shrimp, lobsters, & horseshoe crabs

MOLLUSKS such as: slugs, snails, clams, oysters, mussels, scallops, limpets, squid, & octopuses

ECHINODERMS such as: star fish, sea urchins, sea cucumbers

And many different types of WORMS such as flat worms (planarians), round worms (nematodes), segmented worms (earth worms), sand worms, spiny-head worms, etc.


Always keep in mind that the experiments need to be ethical– if you wouldn’t do it to your favorite pet, don’t do it to an invertebrate either! And all animals need food and water, so do not deprive living creatures of these necessities just to “see what happens” (FYI – they will die).

One strategy for a unique science fair project focused on animals would be to evaluate “preferences” for these animals in terms of food or habitat choices. Research the animal and find an example of a known food item or habitat structure (this will be your “control”). Then design an experiment to determine how “picky” the animal is for that item/structure. Examples include:

What is the “best” habitat for centipedes: leaves, logs, rocks, or no cover? (Define best as the most often selected under your experimental conditions)
Do hermit crabs prefer fruit, leaves, grass, wood, or store food? (Think about how to design a “fair” test for preference)
Can sea anemones learn to distinguish between food and non-food items on their tentacles? (Think about how you could demonstrate and quantify “learning”)

Another strategy is to determine if a behavior is correlated to an environmental variable. For example:
Does salinity affect how often oysters will open up and filter? (You can buy live oysters at the market)
Is moth activity related to the phases of the moon? (Think about how to quantify activity levels in moths)
Is spider web construction (or size, or shape, etc) related to height off the ground?
Do crickets chirp more frequently on warmer nights?

One more thing – Before purchasing animals for an experiment, consider what you will do with them afterwards. Keeping them as pets would be fun, but maybe not practical depending on your choice. You must NEVER release the animal into the wild, (including your back yard or local stream) because of the threat of invasive species displacing native ones.

2 Responses to Science Fair Projects with Animals: Part II – Animals WITHOUT Backbones

  1. chris

    Can you cut a planarian as part of a science fair project? They regenerate… The idea is to see what type of super foods ( experiment with some) help them regerate faster or is it better to have them go through a maze for food and try having them exposed to different super foods?

    • Dr. Maille Lyons

      Planaria are worms and generally I don’t recommend any projects that harm animals. Yes, they regenerate, but it takes a while and you will probably kill a few 🙁

      So – I would recommend the maze variation.

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