The flips of these beetle larvae are ready for the Olympics : NPR

The larvae of a species of bark beetle can perform acrobatic flips, swinging their bodies through the air. They join maggots and other grubs in their athletic abilities.



MARY LOUISE KELLY, Host:

OKAY. Get ready, world. There is a new movement in gymnastics like never before.

JESSICA O’BEIRNE: The amazing thing about this jump is taking off from a push-up position. It’s just – like, basically it goes from playing dead to launching itself like Simone Biles.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The athlete in question is not necessarily a traditional competitor. It is the larva of a bark beetle. Jessica O’Beirne, host of “GymCastic,” the gymnastics podcast, agreed to give it a score.

O’BEIRNE: This larva gets a little deduction for spinning off center in the twists and also for just falling over when it lands. But I’d probably give it a nine, a 9.1. Also, the difficulty score will be huge. I mean, it’s going to rival Simone’s Yurchenko double pike vault in difficulty, so it’s doing really well.

KELLY: In case you’re wondering, these larvae are tiny, about an inch long. They live in dead or dying trees. So when North Carolina State University entomologist Matt Bertone saw a rotting oak tree on campus, he knew exactly what to do.

MATT BERTONE: So I started going up there and taking the bark off, collecting all the insects that were there.

ADRIAN SMITH: Matt’s the type of entomologist who — any dead tree that’s still standing with some kind of weird fungus in the bark, like — he’s all set.

CHANG: That’s Bertone’s colleague Adrian Smith from NC State and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. The two said they weren’t expecting acrobatics, but when Bertone took a closer look…

BERTONE: I noticed they would crawl a bit and then jump. And it was really strange, and I didn’t know if I was seeing things or not.

SMITH: The next thing he did was call me up and say, hey. Want to film something weird? – because he knows my answer will always be yes.

KELLY: The two used high-speed video to capture this spectacular somersault jump. The larva has little to no muscles and can therefore not jump like humans. Instead, he grips the ground with his paws and bends the center of his body into the air. That builds energy.

SMITH: It’s kind of a mousetrap, isn’t it? You build it by pulling back the swing arm and loading your energy into the spring. And then you set the latch which, when activated, releases all that stored energy.

CHANGE: When the larva lets go, all that stored energy sends it into the air at ascent speeds of up to two miles per hour.

BERTONE: And they kind of do a somersault and then land on the ground and start walking again.

CHANG: The longest jumps were barely an inch long. The scientists describe the previously unrecorded move in the journal PLOS One.

KELLY: Okay, a real question here. Why do the larvae do this differently than – I don’t know – style? One idea is that they jump to avoid predators. It is faster, takes less energy than crawling.

CHANG: However, Jessica O’Beirne says the larva still needs to work on sticking the landing, of course.

O’BEIRNE: He definitely makes the podium, although it might seem like he’s going to the final and everyone is super impressed and then he just rolls off the floor to the judges. And that’s not going to help.

CHANG: So the next time you see a dead tree, take a look under the bark, and maybe you can be the judge.

(SOUNDBITE FROM DAVE BRUBECK’S “EVERYBODY’S JUMPIN'”)

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