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Jesus Rivera/Kisailus Biomimetics and Nanostructured Materials Lab/University of California, Irvine

Even a car can’t kill this beetle. Here’s why

When entomologists first told Jesus Rivera that a nondescript black beetle could survive being run over by a car, he was skeptical. Then he tried it, and the insect walked away unscathed (as you can see for yourself in the video below). Now, this newly minted Ph.D. at the University of California, Irvine, has discovered the secret to this bug’s success.

The diabolical ironclad beetle (Phloeodes diabolicus) lives under the bark of oak and other trees in the western United States, feasting on fungi growing there. Like other beetles, it plays dead when in danger. But though this tiny bug isn’t much bigger than a grain of rice, it can withstand crushing forces equivalent to 39,000 times its body weight, the researchers discovered. That’s about four times more than the strongest humans exert when squeezing the beetle between the thumb and forefinger.

In additional experiments, Rivera and colleagues found the beetle’s toughness and strength arise because the two halves of its outer wing cover are connected like joined jigsaw puzzle pieces. The bulbous shape of interlocking lobes and the right number of them—about five—optimize these properties, Rivera and colleagues report today in Nature. In addition, the supports between the wing cover and the body are structured so as to protect vital organs in the midbody during crushing.

The scientists are now using the beetle’s design to build similarly strong fasteners with potential for use in cars, bicycles, and even airplanes. Who knows, one day you might see a Volkswagen Beetle as tough as a, well, beetle.