Tag Archives: beetle

Beetles produce a lubricant that’s more slippery than Teflon

Humans may come up with clever innovations and designs for useful many products, but chances are nature has beaten us to the job. The latest example is lubricant: researchers have discovered that beetles can naturally lubricate their knees with a substance that works better than Teflon.

Image credit: Flickr / Budak

Insects are the largest group of animals on Earth, but there’s still much we haven’t discovered about them yet. For instance, scientists have a limited understanding of how insects’ joints reduce friction and are protected from wear and tear. In vertebrates, joints are enclosed into a cavity filled out by the synovial fluid serving as a lubricant between contacting cartilage surfaces. These fluid-lubricated joints exhibit a very low coefficient of friction.

But what happens to insects who don’t have this?

Researchers at the Christian-Albrechts University of Kiel and Aarhus University used a scanning electron microscope to examine the knee joint of the darkling beetle (Zophobas morio). They found that the area where the femur and tibia meet is covered with pores that excrete a lubricant substance made of proteins and fatty acids. Turns out, the lubricant is very powerful.

The team put it to the test, placing it between two glass surfaces and rubbing them together. The friction between the planes with the material between was much lower than without the material between them. The researchers also found that his material was better as a lubricant than vacuum grease and better than Teflon.

Polytetrafluoroethylene (PFTE), commonly known as Teflon, is a synthetic polymer containing carbon and fluorine. It’s commonly used as a non-stick coating in kitchen cookware, such as pans and baking trays. It’s also used in the manufacture of semiconductors and medical devices and as an inert ingredient of pesticides. 

The researchers think the insect lubricant also has other functions. Under a high load, chunks of it deformed and created a squashable layer between two surfaces that acted like a shock absorber and prevented abrasive contact. Still, extracting the lubricant would be too expensive and time consuming, so the team wants to find a way to synthesize it. 

“First of all, we need to understand the molecular structure, and then perhaps it is possible. Maybe it is necessary to involve biotechnology and use bacteria to produce it,” co-author Konstantin Nadein from the University of Kiel in Germany told New Scientist.

The researchers think this natural lubricant from beetles might be useful for small-scale robots and prosthetics, for which conventional lubricants don’t work that well. They called for further studies on the properties of the lubricant so to come up with ideas for further biometric applications in the area of novel lubricating materials. 

“In this regard, this research may be of particular interest for robotics and MEMS technology, and especially for prosthetics, in order to develop a new generation of completely bio-organic lubricants with friction-reducing properties similar to PTFE (Teflon),” the researchers wrote. 

The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. 

Researchers discover a new species of ancient beetle inside fossilized poop

Researchers at the Uppsala University have reported on an exciting find: the world’s first species identified from a piece of fossilized dinosaur poop.

Image credits Martin Qvarnström et al., (2021), Current Biology.

The 230-million-year old insect was found in excellent condition inside a dinosaur coprolite, a piece of fossilized feces. It was christened Triamyxa coprolithica in honor of this.

In-dung beetle

Coprolites are quite common in museum collections around the world, but aren’t generally examined to see if they contain any fossils. This is due to the fact that the consensus among paleontologists is that small insects (the only animals small enough to fit inside coprolites) wouldn’t have been able to survive through the digestive tract of a dinosaur intact.

Because of this, most of our knowledge regarding insect evolution in the past comes from specimens that were trapped in amber, fossilized tree resin. The downside with this is that such specimens aren’t that common, so we can miss bits of the original picture, and they’re also not very old, geologically speaking. The oldest such fossils we’ve ever found are around 140 million years old — which isn’t that old.

For the study, Uppsala University paleontologist Martin Qvarnström and his colleagues examined coprolites from Poland that were previously dated to the Triassic period (230 million years ago). They selected a particular fragment based on its external features. It was 2 centimeters long with broken ends, and their shape suggested it was once part of a larger specimen which the team believed would make it more likely to contain insect remnants.

This fragment was then examined with X-rays inside a synchrotron, which allowed the team to rotate the coprolite in the beam in order to create a 3D model of its inside structure. There, they found excellently preserved, almost complete insect bodies measuring 1.4 millimeters in length, alongside fragments including heads, legs, and antennae.

Based on the wealth and quality of the specimens found in the coprolite, the authors were able to determine that they are a new species belonging to the group Myxophaga, small beetles that live in wet habitats and feed on algae. Although this species — coprolithica — is now extinct, four lineages in the Myxophaga group are alive to this day. This is the first time we’ve found enough fossilized material of good enough quality to “describe a new species, genus, and family,” says lead author Martin Qvarnström.

The classification was made based on characteristics like the number of abdomen segments or the position of the antennae which were compared to those of modern Myxophaga.

The coprolite was most likely dropped by a Silesaurus opolensis, a beaked dinosaur ancestor that grew to about 2.3 meters in length. It’s very likely what kept the insects in such good condition, as the material creates a microenvironment that preserves organic material such as soft tissues without flattening them, like typical fossilization processes do.

All in all, this research gives us fresh information about the evolution of beetles, as well as a glimpse into the dietary habits of certain dinosaurs and the structure of food webs during the Triassic.

For T. coprolithica itself, we still can’t know for sure how or why it went extinct while some of its relatives survived into the modern period. Many factors, which can often seem unrelated, contribute to a species surviving or dying off — so its causes are never easy to understand.

The paper “Exceptionally preserved beetles in a Triassic coprolite of putative dinosauriform origin” has been published in the journal Current Biology.

Researchers map the anatomy of the ‘mysteriously-shaped’ beetle

Roughly one year ago, researchers in Myanmar found a new species of beetle encased in amber. At the time, they were unable to describe the insect’s full morphology, so they christened it Mysteriomorphidae (‘mysteriously shaped’). Now, researchers in Europe have reconstructed the insects from four new samples.

Image credits D. Peris, R. Kundrata et al., (2020), Scientific Reports.

These findings allowed the team to better place the species in the tree of life, finding it is closely related to a living family of beetles.

The beetles

The current findings were made possible by a collaboration between members from the University of Bonn, Germany, and Palacky University, in the Czech Republic. They used computer tomography (CT) to study the body structure (morphology) of the beetles from four specimens found encased in amber since the species was first described.

Some of these specimens were very well preserved, allowing the team to carry out a digital reconstruction of their bodies from CT scans. This technique has seen ample use in paleontology as it allows researchers to study tiny features of fossils, even internal ones, without damaging the specimen.

This isn’t the first attempt to describe the outer morphology of Mysteriomorphidae. However, previous research still left some open questions, which the current results answer. In particular, they were able to take a better look at the insect’s thorax, abdomen, and mouthparts, which are tell-tale elements of individual beetle families.

“We used the morphology to better define the placement of the beetles and discovered that they were very closely related to Elateridae, a current family,” explains Dr. Robin Kundrata from Palacky University, co-lead of the study and an expert on this family of beetles.

Scientists reconstruct beetles from the Cretaceous
Image credits D. Peris, R. Kundrata et al., (2020), Scientific Reports.

Earlier models had pointed to beetles enjoying a low extinction rate throughout their evolutionary history, even through periods such as the Cretaceous period when extinctions were the name of the game (this time saw the dinosaurs wiped out). But species such as Mysteriomorphidae and similar groups of beetles are known only from Cretaceous ambers, suggesting that they didn’t survive past this period of time.

The team believes this comes down to the rapid development and expansion of flowering plants during the Cretaceous period. These essentially reshaped most ecosystems of the time, placing extra pressure on the species adapted to the previous status quo. This expansion made it possible for pollinators to evolve, which outcompeted many of the previous species of insects.

“Our results support the hypothesis that beetles, but perhaps some other groups of insects, suffered a decrease in their diversity during the time of plant revolution,” says Dr. David Peris, one of the two main authors of the study.

The paper “Unlocking the mystery of the mid-Cretaceous Mysteriomorphidae (Coleoptera: Elateroidea) and modalities in transiting from gymnosperms to angiosperms” has been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Researchers build the first wireless camera that fits on a beetle

It’s a good day to be a tech-loving beetle, as researchers at the University of Washington (UW) have developed a tiny, wireless camera that can be mounted on top of live insects such as beetles and robots of similar size.

Image credits Mark Stone / University of Washington.

The camera can stream video to a smartphone at 1 to 5 frames per second — which, admittedly, isn’t a lot. But that performance becomes much more impressive when you consider that it weighs just 250 milligrams (0.008 ounces) and can pivot 60 degrees (to get wide-angle panorama shots).


“We have created a low-power, low-weight, wireless camera system that can capture a first-person view of what’s happening from an actual live insect or create vision for small robots,” said senior author Shyam Gollakota, a UW associate professor in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering.

“Vision is so important for communication and for navigation, but it’s extremely challenging to do it at such a small scale. As a result, prior to our work, wireless vision has not been possible for small robots or insects.”

The team mounted the cameras on top of live beetles and insect-sized robots to test their efficiency. The cameras themselves are lightweight but the batteries needed to power them would be much too large for the insects to bear, so the team used a different approach.

Vision is inherently energy-hungry. Flies, the authors note, use between 10% and 20% “of their resting energy just to power their brains, most of which is devoted to visual processing”. In order to reduce this strain, their eyes have a central area of high-focus and an external area of low-focus. To see clearly, they need to turn their heads in the direction they want to see; the outer area then helps them keep watch for predators, but doesn’t produce a high-quality image.

This setup also means that their brains have to use much less energy to process the incoming images.

To mimic this approach, the team installed a tiny, ultra-low-power black-and-white camera on a mechanical arm that they can sweep across the field of view. The arm moves when a high voltage is applied (which bends the material). Unless more power is applied, the arm stays in place for about a minute and eventually relaxes back into its original position

“One advantage to being able to move the camera is that you can get a wide-angle view of what’s happening without consuming a huge amount of power,” said co-lead author Vikram Iyer, a UW doctoral student in electrical and computer engineering.

“We can track a moving object without having to spend the energy to move a whole robot. These images are also at a higher resolution than if we used a wide-angle lens, which would create an image with the same number of pixels divided up over a much larger area.”

The whole setup can be controlled with a smartphone via Bluetooth from a distance of up to 120 meters away.

The beetles chosen to test this camera were a death-feigning beetle and a Pinacate beetle, as there was evidence they could bear weights of around half a gram. The team ensured the device didn’t impede the insects’ motions, and let them loose on gravel, on a slope, and on a tree. The beetles successfully navigated them all, even managing to climb the tree. The authors note that the beetles lived for at least a year after the experiment.

“We added a small accelerometer to our system to be able to detect when the beetle moves. Then it only captures images during that time,” Iyer said.

“If the camera is just continuously streaming without this accelerometer, we could record one to two hours before the battery died. With the accelerometer, we could record for six hours or more, depending on the beetle’s activity level.”

The robot used in the tests is the smallest power-autonomous terrestrial robot with wireless vision, according to the paper. It uses vibrations to move (which makes it very energy-efficient). While the setup worked, the vibrations distorted the overall image, so the team had the robot make a short stop, take a picture, and resume moving. In this mode, the robot managed 2 to 3 centimeters per second and a camera battery life of around 90 minutes.

Applications for tiny cameras abound. It’s the first time we’ve been able to have direct footage from the back of an insect, and the camera’s diminutive size means it can go where no other similar device has in the past.

But the team is particularly worried about privacy concerns. They hope that by introducing the public to their creation, “people can start coming up with solutions to address them”.

The paper “Wireless steerable vision for live insects and insect-scale robots,” has been published in the journal Science Robotics.

Volcano-dwelling beetle inspires new ‘passive cooling’ material

Researchers at The University of Texas at Austin’s Cockrell School of Engineering, alongside scientists from China and Sweden, have created a new material that passively cools itself down.

A Longicorn Beetle.
Image credits Flickr / patrickkavanagh.

The material was inspired by the wing structure of a longicorn beetle species native to volcanic areas in Southeast Asia. The beetles rely on self-cooling tissues to allow them to live in such inhospitable places.

Cool new materials

“Anywhere that needs cooling, this can help,” said Yuebing Zheng, an associate professor in the Walker Department of Mechanical Engineering. “Refrigerators, air conditioners and other methods consume large amounts of energy, but this is cooling by itself.”

While the insect uses its body’s ability to regulate heat and gain access to an environment its competitors can’t live in, the researchers plan to use the new material it inspired to help cool everything from buildings to electronic devices in an environmentally friendly manner.

The researchers first had to determine what gave the beetle (Neocerambyx Gigas, one of 26,000 species of longhorn beetle) its cooling capability. They discovered that their wings are covered in triangular “fluffs” that disperse body heat while also reflecting sunlight.

The team then created a new “photonic film” based on these structures. This film is constructed from common, flexible material (PDMS polymer), and the team explains that it is mechanically strong enough for wide-spread use and easy to manufacture.

The film is applied as a coating on objects and can help decrease temperatures in spaces, buildings, appliances, or electronics without expending energy to do so. In lab tests, it was able to reduce the temperature of items in direct sunlight by up to a respectable 5.1 degrees Celsius (9 degrees Fahrenheit).

It could be put over windows in office spaces or apartment buildings to reflect incoming sunlight, and thus keep temperatures down. It can also be used to protect solar panels from sunlight-induced degradation, or to keep cars cool while parked. In the long run, it could even be used with clothing and personal electronics, the researchers hope.

The paper “Biologically inspired flexible photonic films for efficient passive radiative cooling” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Beetle trapped in amber pushes back insect pollination by 50 million years

Paleontologists in China and the US have documented the earliest case of insect pollination thanks to a 99-million-year-old beetle preserved in amber. The pristine fossil contains traces of pollen showing that the evolution of plants and animals during this time period were closely intertwined.

Illustration of A. burmitina. Credit: Ding-hau Yang.

David Dilcher, an emeritus professor at the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Science at the Indiana University, performed a morphological review of the 62 grains of pollen found in the amber, which came from a mine in northern Myanmar. Dilcher is one of the world’s foremost experts in amber fossilization, who also has a lot of experience studying the earliest flowering plants.

The pollen was not easy to find. To the untrained eye, the tiny granules don’t look like anything important. However, the researchers analyzed the beetle’s body hairs under a confocal laser microscope, which made the pollen grains glow, contrasting strongly with the darkness of the insect’s shell.

This is the earliest known physical evidence of insect pollination. Credit: Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology.

The shape and structure of the pollen — particularly the pollen’s size, “ornamentation” and clumping ability — show that it evolved to spread through contact with insects.  The analysis showed that the pollen came from a flower species in the group eudicots, which is one of the most common types of flowering plant species.

As for the beetle trapped in the amber, it belongs to a new species that the researchers named Angimordella burmitina. Using X-ray microcomputed tomography (micro-CT), Dilcher and colleagues could study the insect’s shape and physical features in minute detail without having to disturb or damage the fossil in any way whatsoever. Armed with a 3-D digital model of the beetle, the researchers could clearly see several specialized body parts signaling the insect’s role as a pollinator, including the shape of the body itself and pollen-feeding mouthparts.

A close up of A. burmitina in amber. Credit: Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology.

Researchers determined the age of the amber fossil from the age of other known fossils retrieved from the same location. At nearly 100 million years old — during a time when pterodactyls were still alive, roaming the sky — the discovery pushes back the earliest documented instance of insect pollination to about 50 million years earlier.

“It’s exceedingly rare to find a specimen where both the insect and the pollen are preserved in a single fossil,” said Dilcher. “Aside from the significance as earliest known direct evidence of insect pollination of flowering plants, this specimen perfectly illustrates the cooperative evolution of plants and animals during this time period, during which a true exposition of flowering plants occurred.”

The findings appeared in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Scientists discover and name 103 beetles — all new to science

The Indonesian Island of Sulawesi was known to host some of the planet’s most enigmatic wildlife, including the tusked deer-pig babirusa. Now, researchers have discovered a trove of new insect life — so many that they had some trouble finding names for all of them. The names of Star Wars and Asterix characters were chosen to fill in the ranks of newly-discovered beetles.

These three beetles were named after Asterix, Obelix, and their loyal dog Idefix. Naturally, Obelix is much larger. From left to right: Trigonopterus asterixT. obelix and T. idefix, three newly described species from Sulawesi (Indonesia). Image credits: Alexander Riedel.

The beetles

For all its amazing fauna, the insect diversity of Sulawesi has remained largely understudied.

“We had found hundreds of species on the neighboring islands of New Guinea, Borneo and Java – why should Sulawesi with its lush habitats remain an empty space?” asked entomologist and lead author of the study Dr Alexander Riedel, Natural History Museum Karlsruhe (Germany).

In fact, Riedel himself discovered a few interesting specimens all the way back in 1990 — specimens which would become the basis of the current study. Since then, Riedel has carried out several expeditions on Sulawesi,
in collaboration with the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI). Bit by bit, they found more pieces of the insect puzzle — but it wasn’t easy.

For starters, they are difficult to see. In the lush forests of Sulawesi, tiny beetles that measure 2-3 millimeters don’t really stand out. Secondly, identifying them is even more difficult.

Although DNA analysis shows that they are clearly different species, many of the newly discovered beetle species look quite similarly to each other. In fact, they look so similar to each other that DNA sequencing seems like the only method to tell them apart.

Lastly, the funding hasn’t exactly been flowing. There is only one full-time position for a beetle researcher at the only Indonesian Zoological Museum, which covers the entire Indonesian archipelago of over 17,000 islands, so international collaboration was key.

The researchers’ efforts were greatly rewarded, however, with over 100 new species discovered. Even so, the team says they’ve only begun to understand the tiny critters that lurk in Sulawesi.

“Our survey is not yet complete and possibly we have just scratched the surface. Sulawesi is geologically complex and many areas have never been searched for these small beetles,” said Raden Pramesa Narakusumo, curator of beetles at the Museum Zoologicum Bogoriense (MZB), Indonesian Research Center for Biology.

Naming 103 beetles

Compilation of 100 Trigonopterus species discovered in 2013, also by Riedel and colleagues — note how similar they look to each other. Image credits: Riedel et al (2013).

All of the beetles they’ve found are weevils, and furthermore, they all belong to the genus Trigonopterus — a genus of flightless weevil. Until 2013, only 90 Trigonopterus species were known, when a single paper doubled that number.

Coming up with as many as 103 novel names is not a particularly easy task either. At first, they used descriptive names or names associated with localities, but those ran up quickly — so researchers turned to popular culture for inspiration.

After childhood favorites Asterix and Obelix, they turned to the Star Wars character Yoda and to the mythological satyrs and the Greek goddess of hunting, Artemis. Other species pay tribute to famous biologists, including Charles Darwin (father of the Theory of Evolution), Paul D. N. Hebert (implementer of DNA barcoding as a tool in species identification) and DNA pioneers Francis H. C. Crick and James D. Watson.

The study also provides some information about the evolution of the
Trigonopterus. Sulawesi is part of Wallacea, a bio-geographical transition zone between Australia and Asia, which means it has fauna from both areas. Researchers now believe that Trigonopterus originated in Australia and only later reached Sulawesi, where it developed a thriving population. A group with only a few different populations was found to be capable of diverging into more than a hundred species in a brief period of time, something which researchers are currently analyzing.

Journal Reference: Riedel A, Narakusumo RP (2019) One hundred and three new species of Trigonopterus weevils from Sulawesi. ZooKeys 828: 1-153. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.828.32200

A male digger bee (Habropoda pallida) from the Mojave Desert covered with Meloe franciscanus triungulins (larvae). Credit: Leslie Saul-Gershenz.

Parasitic beetles trick sex-hungry bees by mimicking their pheromones

A male digger bee (Habropoda pallida) from the Mojave Desert covered with Meloe franciscanus triungulins (larvae). Credit: Leslie Saul-Gershenz.

A male digger bee (Habropoda pallida) from the Mojave Desert covered with Meloe franciscanus triungulins (larvae). Credit: Leslie Saul-Gershenz.

Sometimes, nature is simply ruthless. Meloe blister beetles might look like your ordinary flightless insects but don’t let their appearance deceive you — these are the ultimate freeloaders, and they will employ the slyest tricks to access resources. According to a recent study, these masters of deception adapt their arsenal of tricks to their bee hosts, which includes mimicking pheromones and cruising altitude.

The siren scent

Certain, more solitary, bee species rely on pheromones to find a mate, and the blister beetle couldn’t be more happy with that fact. The larvae of Meloe franciscanus, which hatch in the hundreds at a time, lure in male digger bees by generating chemical signals that mimic female sex pheromones. Once the males are in proximity, the larvae hitch a ride on the backs of the bees until they encounter a female. During copulation, the larvae switch and tag along with the female until they’ve infiltrated the nest. Here, they feed on the pollen, nectar, eggs, and bee larvae themselves, until they’re ready to emerge as adult beetles the following winter.

Saul-Gershenz, a graduate student in entomology at UC Davis, and colleagues studied the parasitic behavior in two related but geographically separate species of bees: Habropoda pallida from California’s Mojave Desert and H. miserabilis from the coastal dunes of Oregon.

The researchers found that the beetles produce pheromones made by females bees, some of which are not found in the scent given off by male bees. What’s interesting is that the pheromones produced by local beetles that parasitize Mojave bees did not attract male Oregon bees. Likewise, Mojave bees ignored the pheromones released by larvae which typically target Oregon bee males. 

“Male bees of both species were more attracted to local parasite larvae than larvae from the distant locale because the larvae tailored their pheromone-mimicking blends to the pheromones of their local hosts,” Saul-Gershenz said in a statement.

H. miserabilis infested with larvae. Credit: Leslie Saul-Gershenz.

That’s not all. The two different species of bees cruise at different heights when looking for a mate — about 35 cm above the ground in the desert and 10 cm above the beach. This behavior is hardwired into the bees as Oregon bees which were moved to the desert buzzed about the same altitude.

The beetles responded to this tendency as well, with larvae climbing to the appropriate height for each type of bee before releasing their pheromones.

It’s all a fascinating example of relatively rapid evolution via local adaptation of a parasite species to different hosts.

“The larvae cooperate with their siblings for a brief period; they mimic the pheromone of their hosts; they are locally adapted to different hosts both chemically and behaviorally; and their emergence times are plastic across their geographic range. It has been fantastic to unravel this species’ puzzle,” she said.

Scientists invent ultra-white coating inspired by beetle scales

With the help of a Southeast Asian beetle, British and Finnish researchers have devised an ultra-white coating that could be used to make some of the brightest paints and coatings. The coating is super-thin, non-toxic, and edible, which could make it appealing for everything from the cosmetic to the food industry.

A Cyphochilus beetle, which inspired the super-white coating.

A Cyphochilus beetle, which inspired the super-white coating. Credit: Olimpia Onelli.

The Cyphochilus beetle has unusually bright white scales that cover the whole exoskeleton. They’re actually whiter than paper or any artificial material produced thus far. In 2014, researchers at the University of Cambridge learned that the insect’s super-whiteness has something to do with the complex molecular geometry of its scales. Despite being incredibly thin, the scales deflect all colors with equal strength and incredible efficiency — something which is very rarely found in nature.

Now, the same team has found a way to mimic the Cyphochilus‘s scales into a coating. The idea was born out of a presentation about cellulose membranes for gas filtration at a conference. “Could we use the same process to fabricate an ultra-white material? This is how this fruitful collaboration started,” Dr. Olimpia Onelli, a researcher at Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry and co-author of the new paper, told ZME Science.

Unlike other commercially available white products, which incorporate highly refractive particles (titanium oxide or zinc oxide), the new super-white coating doesn’t rely on pigments to reflect light, but rather chitin — a fibrous substance consisting of polysaccharides, which is the major constituent in the exoskeleton of arthropods, the cell walls of fungi, and the shells of molluscs. Chitin naturally scatters light extremely efficiently thanks to its structure.

Some butterflies sport spectacular coloring thanks to the nanostructures present on the surface of their wings, which have a specific pattern. However, to produce white, you want the structure to be hit by light as randomly as possible.

“After a few months of testing the membranes, however, we encountered a problem. We were measuring the percentage of light transmitted through the membranes as a function of the membrane’s thickness: usually, the thicker the membrane, the less light passes through and the relationship between these two quantities is linear,” Onelli said.

“However, something was different here and this is when we had a real ‘aha!’ moment: light was not propagating normally in the membranes; in fact, the propagation was anomalous due to the anisotropic nature of the material which improves the whiteness of the membranes,” she added.

Cyphochilus beetle and cellulose coating. Credit: Olimpia Onelli.

Cyphochilus beetle and cellulose coating. Credit: Olimpia Onelli.

Starting from tiny strands of cellulose (nanofibrils), the Cambridge researchers, in collaborations with colleagues at Aalto University in Finland, were able to mimic the structure of chitin. By varying the diameter of the nanofibrils, which look a lot like spaghetti, the researchers effectively tuned the opacity of their material, and hence its whiteness. They eventually hit a sweet spot, finding just the right combination of nanofibrils. Each membrane is no thicker than a few millionths of a meter.

The resulting coating is 20 times whiter than paper, and since it’s made from cellulose, it is non-toxic. The Cambridge researchers say that the ultra-thin membranes could be incorporated in the next-generation of bright, sustainable, and biocompatible white materials.

“We think that bio-inspiration can provide us with a route towards sustainable materials: not only in terms of the materials used but also in terms of fabrication routes. We are studying nanomaterials self-assemble in nature to learn about bottom-up fabrication techniques which can replace the more expensive and less environmentally-friendly top-down approaches which are currently used,” Onelli said.

This is just the latest in a string of scientific papers that took cues from nature. Elsewhere, researchers at Harvard University combined the water-collecting traits from the awesome Namib desert beetle with those of the cactus and pitcher plants to devise a material that seemingly makes water out of thin air. And General Electric chemists turned nanostructures on the butterfly’s wings into an infrared (IR) detector. These are just a few examples. “There are a lot of tricks that we can learn from nature to make, for example, hydrophobic surfaces inspired by the lotus leaves or super-adhesive membranes inspired by the feet of geckos,” Onelli told me.

Next, Onelli and colleagues want to further improve the performance of their membranes by fine-tuning the size and spatial arrangement of the cellulose nanofibrils in order to enhance the whiteness.

“We would also like to work on on the surface chemistry of the fibrils in order to strengthen even further the material so we can expand the range of applications,” she said.

“In addition, we would like to dig deeper into the effect of anisotropy: this is a under-explored topic in the field and we are keen to understand more about the role of anisotropy and its effect on the overall whiteness of a material.”

Scientific reference: Matti S. Toivonen et al. ‘Anomalous-Diffusion-Assisted Brightness in White Cellulose Nanofibril Membranes.’ Advanced Materials (2018). DOI: 10.1002/adma.201704050.

Violet ground beetle.

Without tree husks to house them, Europe’s beetles are dying out

As Europe is running out of trees, beetles are running out of time.

Violet ground beetle.

Image credits Bernard Dupont.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has assessed the status of 700 European species of beetle that live in old and hollowed wood — and the results aren’t good. Almost a fifth of these species (18%) are at risk of extinction due to the decline in ancient trees, according to the report, European Red List of Saproxylic Beetles.

Saproxylic beetles (meaning beetles somehow related to dead and/or rotting wood) have a key role to play in environments, as they help decomposition do its thing and cycle nutrients back into use. They’re also quite plump, and are an important food source for birds and mammals. Finally, some are even involved in pollination.

However, Europe is running out of them. Logging, tree loss, and deforestation are taking a huge toll on the insects’ habitats, the IUCN reports. Other major threats include urbanization, development of the tourism industry, and an increase in wildfires in the Mediterranean region.

“Some beetle species require old trees that need hundreds of years to grow, so conservation efforts need to focus on long-term strategies to protect old trees across different landscapes in Europe, to ensure that the vital ecosystem services provided by these beetles continue,” said Jane Smart, director of the IUCN Global Species Programme.

Luc Bas, the director of IUCN’s European Regional Office, says it’s “critical for the Common Agricultural Policy to promote the appropriate management of wood pasture habitats containing veteran trees across Europe”. One of the measures proposed as part of this new management approach is to create inventories of ancient and veteran trees from each European country, to enable local and national governments to protect them adequately across landscapes.

The report further points out that each landscape needs to be populated with trees of different ages, including saplings, mature and ancient trees, as well as some that are past their ‘best before’ date — such as standing dead trees, fallen tree trunks, and stumps. The forestry sector in many countries has made progress regarding the last category, which is traditionally treated as a nuisance and something that should be removed to clear space for newer plants.

A beetle’s life

There are 58 families of beetles spread across Europe, totaling some 29,000 species, of which some can explode. Out of these, some 4,000 are believed to be saproxylic. However, data is lacking for many of these species: for half of the saproxyls, “the population trend [remains] unknown”. The IUCN suggests that more monitoring is needed, and sooner rather than later, so we can keep accurate tabs on the beetles’ health.

“Some of these beetles are incredibly beautiful interesting things – if people stopped and looked at them and appreciated them, they’d realise they’re just as worthy of conservation as elephants and tigers,” Keith Alexander, IUCN Saproxylic Beetles Specialist Advisor, told the BBC.

“And these things live in the countryside on our doorstep.”

dung beetle

Dung beetle uses poop ball cargo as air conditioning

dung beetle

The dung beetle is an extreme survivor. Not only does it feed on poop, but it also fashions a hefty ball out of it, up to 50 times its own mass, that it rolls through the scorching desert. We’re talking 60 degrees Celsius here. A new study that has closely followed this truly remarkable creature has found that the dung beetle is even more ingenious than previously thought, as it uses its poop ball not only as a means of transportation and food supply, but also for cooling.

“Dung beetles are the first example of an insect using a mobile, thermal refuge to move across hot soil,” researcher Jochen Smolka, a neuroethologist at Lund University in Sweden, told LiveScience. “Insects, once thought to be at the mercy of environmental temperatures, use sophisticated behavioral strategies to regulate their body temperature[s].”

These findings came after scientists studying the dung beetle’s peculiar, dance-like ritual performed on top of its ball observed that this behavior was more frequent during the midday – when it’s also the hottest. They then thought to use thermal vision cameras to watch the Scarabaeus (Kheper) lamarcki as it moved through two specially built sand arenas, as a measure of experimental control. One of the arenas was shaded to a relatively cool 124.3 degrees F (51.3 degrees C), while the other was left completely exposed to sunlight and reached up to about 135 degrees F (57.2 degrees C).

The researchers note that the beetle climbed the dung ball seven times more often on hot ground than on shaded ground. Then the scientists had a blast and gave the dung beetle some nice dancing shoes – painted rubbery boots made of silicone onto the insect’s legs, designed to protect them from the scorching heat. The fine boots also, in turn, made the dung beetle comfortable enough not to climb its ball that often.

How does the dung ball keep the insect cool, though? Well, the researchers found that once on board, the dung beetle spreads regurgitated liquid onto its legs and heads, in a wiping gesture. This behavior has never been seen in other times of the day, except daytime.  Also, the dung ball is remarkably cool, staying at 32°C, since it has a lot of water, which is constantly evaporating. The researchers found the front legs of the beetles cooled by about 7°C on average within 10 seconds of climbing on their excrement balls.

Findings were documented in the journal Current Biology.

Beetle species could be listed as threatened

It’s not only tigers, corals and other known and liked animals that are close to extinction: beetles have it rough too.

In what is now a desperate effort to save the declining number of one beetle species, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service has issued a proposal on Tuesday suggesting that the Coral Pink Sand Dunes tiger beetle should be put on the endangered species list, and furthermore, designate a 2000 acre area as critical habitat.

The Service explained that beetle numbers have been going down drastically since 1992, most of the damage being done by climate change and off-highway vehicle use.

“These rare, striking beetles are in trouble and can only be saved by Endangered Species Act protection,” said Mr. Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the center.

Beetles play a very important role in local ecosystems, and if they have it pretty rough, you can expect a number of other species to have it pretty rough as well. In 1994, a ruling from the Fish and Wildlife Service gave the beetle a “candidate” status – which basically means they’re not endangered, but they’re not looking so good right now and we’ll just wait a little longer and see how it works out. Well, it’s not working out fine, so hopefully, they’ll be protected too – because it’s not about protecting the emblematic species or the cute ones – it’s about protecting the ones who truly need it.

The Coral Pink Sand Dunes tiger beetles are about a half inch in size and have striking coloration upon. They have white wing cases with a thin reddish band and an upper thorax with a metallic sheen.


Papuan weevils have screw-in legs

Long before humans were even thinking about developing the nut and bolt mechanism for screwing one thing to another, mother nature had it all planned and implemented, in this weevil from Papua which attaches their legs to their bodies instead of the old fashion ball-and-socket joint.

Weevils in Papua

Weevils are beetles from the Curculionoidea superfamily, a large and extended family, with over 60.000 species. Due to this fact, they are found almost anywhere in the world, including Papua New Guinea, a country in Oceania, near Australia.

Scientists from Institute for Synchrotron Radiation at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (ANKA) and the State Museum of Natural History in Karlsruhe in Germany, led by Thomas van der Kamp, have been studying Trigonopterus, a genus of 90 described species, observing and analyzing computed tomography (CT) scans of the Papuan weevil Trigonopterus oblongus. They discovered that the top pair of the beetle’s legs are attached in an extremely uncommon way via the trochanter, which screws into another small body part called the coxa, the equivalent of a hip.

Muscles and joints

The inside of coxa and external surface of the trochanter features a mechanism familiar to any mechanic working with nuts and bolts. The trochanter covers around 410 degrees or more than a complete rotation, while the internal threads on the coxa cover 345 degrees.

The muscles turn the legs on the screw threads, an arrangement that allows the weevils to twist their hind and middle legs through 130 degrees, and their front legs through 90 degrees. The joint is more difficult to dislocate than a ball-and-socket joint.
Van der Kamp then examined the legs of 15 more weevil species from different families to see if the same arrangement was used and discovered they did have a nut and bolt system like T. oblongus. The researchers suggested that “it’s a safe bet that all weevils have it.”

Via physorg