It’s a problem we’ve all faced – what do we do when we need to hurl ourselves through the air, but we’re too squidgy to pull off the latch-mediated spring actuation mechanism that all the cool bugs are using? Well, whether or not you wanted an answer to that question, you now have one, and in my opinion it’s pretty neat:
While there are other insect species that are capable of making prodigious leaps, they rely on something called a “latch-mediated spring actuation mechanism.” This means that they essentially have two parts of their body latch onto each other while the insect exerts force, building up a significant amount of energy. The insect then unlatches the two parts, releasing all of that energy at once, allowing it to spring off the ground.
“What makes the L. biguttatus so remarkable is that it makes these leaps without latching two parts of its body together,” Bertone says. “Instead, it uses claws on its legs to grip the ground while it builds up that potential energy — and once those claws release their hold on the ground, that potential energy is converted into kinetic energy, launching it skyward.”
The discovery of the behavior was somewhat serendipitous. Bertone had collected a variety of insect samples from a rotting tree near his lab in order to photograph them when he noticed that these beetle larvae appeared to be hopping.
“The way these larvae were jumping was impressive at first, but we didn’t immediately understand how unique it was,” Bertone says. “We then shared it with a number of beetle experts around the country, and none of them had seen the jumping behavior before. That’s when we realized we needed to take a closer look at just how the larvae was doing what it was doing.”
To determine how L. biguttatus was able to execute its acrobatics, the researchers filmed the jumps at speeds of up to 60,000 frames per second. This allowed them to capture all of the external movements associated with the jumps, and suggested that the legs were essentially creating a latching mechanism with the ground.
The researchers also conducted a muscle mass assessment to determine whether it was possible for the larvae to make their leaps using just their muscles, as opposed to using a latch mechanism to store energy. They found that the larvae lacked sufficient muscle to hurl themselves into the air as far or as fast as they had been filmed jumping. Ergo, latching onto the ground was the only way the larvae could pull off their aerial feats.
It’s not something I spend a lot of time looking for, but it always cheers me up to learn about a moment when a bunch of scientists said, “wait – that shouldn’t be possible!” and then went about figuring out why it is possible. I don’t generally think of beetle grubs as particularly acrobatic creatures, but apparently I misjudged them. When life gives you lemons, latch on to them with your little claws and fling yourself into the void.