The minute insect is known as the Bombardier Beetle because of its particularly interesting defense mechanism. But after sparking endless debate as to how exactly it does what it does and stay unharmed at the end of it, even defying evolution, as some speculated, the mystery of the Bombardier Beetle has been solved. And it turns out the small critter even more intelligent than we thought!
As you may guess by its name, the Bombardier Beetle has an explosive personality that comes out when it feels threatened. What it does is spray a caustic mix of hot chemicals on its attacker, managing to stay safe of creatures ten times its size or even more, such as spiders.
Scientists have been trying to understand how this little insect can wage such a deadly weapon on other insects, but manage to remain intact and unharmed itself. Specialized ultra-fast photography has been used to record what happens during these explosions, and the data was corroborated by numerous dissections of individuals of this species.
As so, what scientists found out is that the beetle does not release one single explosion, as was previously though judging by the sound, that describes one single blow. It was demonstrated that it actually releases a series of small explosions, that are so fast that they cannot be either heard or seen separately.
As for the dissections, they revealed that the insect possesses two storage glands that carry the explosive material and an explosion chamber that has special layers that protect the beetle from its own wrath.
But still, this was not enough to explain why exactly it does not blow up all together and how it manages to remain alive. And it was so that scientists at the University of Arizona decided to look further into the matter by using even more hi-tech gear.
The put the Bombardier Beetle under a powerful X-ray imaging machine that was able to take as much as 2,000 images per second in order to make a small film that explains exactly what happens inside the mysterious beetle.
What the experiment implied was the examination of 500 Bombardier Beetles that were put inside the X-ray chamber one by one and with the use of a robotic hand a forceps was utilized to touch the beetle’s hind leg or rear extremity, in order to provoke an explosion.
But working with such small creatures is quite the challenge. And so, the researchers were able to retrieve 30 recordings of the explosion from 14 different individuals, but thankfully this provided enough material to make their conclusions. They now have hi-def high-speed footage of what happens inside the beetle.
And what this revealed is that the explosions are not in fact generated by the contraction of the muscles in the storage glands; the footage revealed that these are generated passively, as the chemicals from the storage glands go into the explosion chamber. Here, they mix with enzymes and this is how the explosion takes place, releasing a hot mist of oxygen gas and water vapor through the exit pore in the exterior end and forcing its thin cuticular area, comprised of elastic tissue to expand on the interior end, thus separating the storage chamber and the explosive chamber and even closing the valve between them temporarily.
“It turns out the expansion membrane of the reaction chamber acts as a passive closure mechanism, which is something that had not been described or even predicted before this study,”, said Wendy Moore, Assistant Professor of Entomology.
What is even more interesting is that the study revealed that this is also the mechanism behind the small consecutive explosions. After one explosion, the walls of the explosion chamber come back to their normal size, thus the thin cuticular area does so as well, which opens the valves between the two chambers again and the process is repeated. The thin cuticular area is very different from the exterior cuticule, that is mainly comprised out of chitin and wax, and that has the property of protecting the insect from exterior stimuli.
“By having a pulsed delivery, these small beetles produce a relatively large amount of defensive spray, which they can aim precisely and with great force and speed,”, explained Moore. Scientist are still trying to understand why the beetle has this pulsating explosions, but so far, it is the researchers opinion that a pulsed delivery may be a better way of using energy.
Furthermore, taking into account the fact a Bombardier Beetle is less than an inch long, it wouldn’t have enough strength and energy to produce one big explosion. Therefore, producing a lot of small ones is a very smart way to go about it. “This is truly one of the most remarkable and elegant defensive mechanisms documented to date.”, says Wendy Moore about the insect.
Here, you can take a look at the X-ray based footage of the Bombardier Beetle :
The full study will be published today in the journal Science. Now, that the mystery of the bombardier beetle has been solved, scientists want to go further and maybe one day, a new type of engine will be based on the complex physiology of this small insect.
Image Source: flipside.theiet.org
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