March 14, 2020 | David F. Coppedge

Small Animals Strut Their Stuff

Bioengineers struggle to keep up with the designs in nature. For Pi Day, here are some amazing designs in small animals.


Exceptional catapulting jump mechanism in a tiny beetle could be applied in robotic limbs (Pensoft Blog). Flea beetles have an  explosive jump. There are 9,900 species of these little beetles in the tribe Alticini (part of the leaf beetle family) that live around the world in habitats ranging from deserts to rain forests. How do you put this much power into such a small space?

The apparatus responsible for this exceptional jump is hidden inside the beetle’s hind legs and is relatively simple. It contains only three sclerotised parts and a few muscles. Yet, it is, in reality, a highly efficient “catapult”, able to propel the beetle at a distance hundreds of times its body length. Using micro-computed tomography, 3D reconstructions and high-speed filming data, the scientists revealed that the acceleration during the jump can reach an explosive peak of 8,650 m/s2, which is 865 times the acceleration of gravity. The peak power output of the hind legs of the beetle peaked at 2.24 × 105 W/kg (per unit mass). This is about 450 times the capabilities of the fastest known muscle and 100~200 times that of a powerful rally car engine.

Well! Put that kind of wattage to use, and you’ve got possibilities for”excellent use in robotics, as well as in engineering and industrial installations,” the blog says. “In their research paper, they also propose a design of a bionic limb inspired by the studied beetles.” But is it really due to the beetle’s “evolutionary success,” or is that just another sophoxymoronic mythoid?


Nature’s Infrared Club (SPIE, the International Society for Optics and Photonics). From UV to IR, ultraviolet to infrared, we go to learn about animals that have the capability to sense and respond to infrared wavelengths. The black fire beetle is one such critter. A professor in Massachusetts believes by studying animals in the “infrared club” he might be able to extend mammal vision—and eventually human vision—into the infrared region of light. Among animals with this capability are beetles, shrimp and pit vipers.


Deaf moths evolved noise-cancelling scales to evade predators (University of Bristol). Bats and moths have it out for each other. Bats are masters at aeronautics and echolocation, but moths give them a run for their money. Even though the moths don’t have ears to hear the bat’s clicks, they have noise-canceling material on their wings.

The team measured that the scales on the body of a moth absorb as much as 85 per cent of the incoming sound energy and that the scales can reduce the distance a bat would be able to detect a moth by almost 25 per cent, potentially offering the moth a significant increase in its survival chances.

What can you think this kind of technology could do for us humans? How about sound-insulating materials for acoustical labs and music studios? Sounds terrific.

Sea Slugs

Soft robot takes cues from a sea slug’s swimming stroke (Nature). Watch the jumping strip of gel at the beginning of this article, and connect that to sea slugs if you can.

Researchers led by Metin Sitti at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Stuttgart, Germany, sought to make soft robots that can move underwater. Inspired by the fluid motion of sea slugs, the scientists chose bending as the basis for their robot’s movements. They turned to liquid crystals as a basic material and light as a power source.

Using a soft gel and liquid crystals, the team designed the strips to respond to light. The motion they achieve is similar to that of the sea slug, they say.


Biologically inspired ultrathin arrayed camera for high-contrast and high-resolution imaging (Nature; summary on Flies are the heroes of this design story. The unique eye of a particular fly is being studied by South Korean researchers who want to make better cameras.

An insect’s compound eye has superior visual characteristics such as wide viewing angle, high motion sensitivity, and large depth of field while maintaining a small volume of visual structure with a small focal length. Among them, Xenos peckii, an endoparasite of paper wasps, has eyes with hundreds of photoreceptors in a single lens—unlike conventional compound eyes with a few light-sensing cells in an individual eyelet. This unique structure offers higher visual resolution than other insect eyes. The Xenos peckii eye also perceives partial images through pigmented cups that block incoming light between eyelets.

Those are exactly some of the design specs that should go into a quality “ultrathin, arrayed camera.” Thank you, fly!


Some scorpions glow in UV light.

Scorpions make a fluorescent compound that could help protect them from parasites (American Chemical Society). Have you ever looked at a scorpion with UV light? Many species of scorpion glow in the dark. That’s a handy trick to know for campers in desert climates. The reason they glow, the ACS says, is because of two fluorescent compounds in their exoskeletons. They’re not sure what advantage this gives the animals, though, unless it has something to do with resisting parasites.

That’s a curious fact to know, but there’s something more important about scorpions: their venom could save lives.

From scorpion to immunotherapy: City of Hope scientists repurpose nature’s toxin for first-of-its kind CAR T cell therapy to treat brain tumors (City of Hope). City of Hope is a leading cancer research center in California that, incidentally, saved your trusty editor’s life seven years ago with their expert surgeons. At the time, immunotherapy was beginning to show promise. It’s been a rocky road learning how to extract a patient’s T cells, train them to detect tumors, and inject them back into the body. Sometimes it works great; sometimes it doesn’t.

City of Hope researchers isolated chlorotoxin from scorpion venom and found that it binds readily to many tumor cells. They’ve begun clinical trials this month to test its effectiveness and safety. If you don’t get squeamish at pictures of scorpions, watch the 4-minute video clip in the article to learn about this surprising new cancer-fighting technique.


Heliconius butterfly (Illustra Media)

To Make Ultra-Black Materials That Won’t Weigh Things Down, Consider the Butterfly (Duke University, Duke Today). Really, really black materials are highly desirable for things like cameras, telescopes and military camouflage. Why not take cues from butterflies? The scales on the wings of some species absorb 10 to 100 times more light than charcoal, and it’s not due to pigment, but to “structural color” – a phenomenon we have discussed over the years. The nanometer-sized ridges and bumps on the scales, right at the wavelengths of light, can either absorb or intensify some wavelengths, depending on how they are arranged.

To see how this works, watch the video clip in the article with its electron micrographs of the fine structure of a certain species of butterfly with ultra-black wing scales. Alex Davis, a grad student, might inspire a teenage science student to go into a career studying this phenomenon and finding ways to market the butterfly’s secret. Just ignore the evolutionary storytelling parts.


A Future Sound “Computer”? (USC Viterbi School of Engineering). Shark skin, with its microscopic dermal denticles, is very good at smoothing the fish’s movements silently through the water. You would think that engineers at the University of Southern California (USC) would wish to mimic that for submarines or other underwater craft. They do, but Qiming Wang has another idea: computing with materials that bend in response to sound.

Wang and his team, including USC Viterbi Ph.D. candidates Kyung Hoon Lee, Kunhao Yu, An Xin and Zhangzhengrong Feng, and postdoctoral scholar Hasan Al Ba’ba’a, detailed their findings in their paper “Sharkskin-Inspired Magnetoactive Reconfigurable Acoustic Metamaterials,” recently published in Research. Inspired by the dual properties created by the dermal denticles on the surface of a shark’s skin, the team created a new acoustic metamaterial that contains magneto-sensitive nanoparticles that will bend under the force of magnetic stimuli. This magnetic force can change the structure remotely and on-demand, accommodating different transmission conditions….

Wang and his team were able to demonstrate how their smart material could mimic three key electronic devices: a switch, a logic gate, and a diode. The interaction of the magneto-sensitive materials with the magnetic field manipulate acoustic transmission in such a way as to create functions like an electrical circuit.

Those are the building blocks of computers. You can watch the materials bend in response to a acoustic pulses in several video clips in the article.

No matter where you look, designs in nature exceed human capabilities. We many fly some things faster and farther, but these creatures lay eggs and reproduce themselves from a single cell, year after year, millennium after millennium. No engineer can do that! Scientists around the world are rushing to learn about animal and plant designs in order to imitate them and apply them to human needs. That’s great! More power to them. Despite their evolution-talk, Darwinism adds nothing to the science. Keep him out in the junk pile where he belongs, and let him ponder how design might emerge from randomness. The rest of the world is benefiting from biomimetics: the imitation of nature.




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