Can't crush this: Beetle armor gives clues to tougher planes

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Kisailus Biomimetics & Nanostructured Materials Lab, University of California Irvine

This 2016 photo provided by the University of California, Irvine, shows a diabolical ironclad beetle, which can withstand being crushed by forces almost 40,000 times its body weight and are native to desert habitats in Southern California. Scientists say the armor of the seemingly indestructible beetle could offer clues for designing stronger planes and buildings. In a study published Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020, in the journal Nature, a group of scientists explains why the beetle is so squash-resistant. (Jesus Rivera, Kisailus Biomimetics and Nanostructured Materials Lab, University of California Irvine via AP)

NEW YORK – It's a beetle that can withstand bird pecks, animal stomps and even being rolled over by a Toyota Camry. Now scientists are studying what the bug’s crush-resistant shell could teach them about designing stronger planes and buildings.

“This beetle is super tough," said Purdue University civil engineer Pablo Zavattieri, who was among a group of researchers that ran over the insect with a car as part of a new study.

So, how does the seemingly indestructible insect do it? The species — aptly named diabolical ironclad beetle — owes its might to an unusual armor that is layered and pieced together like a jigsaw, according to the study by Zavattieri and his colleagues published in Nature on Wednesday. And its design, they say, could help inspire more durable structures and vehicles.

To understand what gives the inch-long beetle its strength, researchers first tested how much squishing it could take. The species, which can be found in Southern California’s woodlands, withstood compression of about 39,000 times its own weight.

For a 200-pound man, that would be like surviving a 7.8-million-pound crush.

Other local beetle species shattered under one-third as much pressure.

Researchers then used electron microscopes and CT scans to examine the beetle's exoskeleton and figure out what made it so strong.

As is often the case for flightless beetles, the species' elytra — a protective case that normally sheaths wings — had strengthened and toughened over time. Up close , scientists realized this cover also benefited from special, jigsaw-like bindings and a layered architecture.