Biology as engineer

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Wondrous weevils sport super screw!
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still image of 3-D animation of screw, nut and leg rotates to show attachment

Image © Science/AAAS
Now in 3-D: the weevil’s screwy leg joint! Click for an interactive view of a weevil’s left hind leg (requires Javascript and have Adobe Reader 8.1 or higher).

In animal appendages, some joints resemble hinges. Others, like your hip, are unmistakably akin to the ball-and-socket joint, another mechanical mainstay.

Now, scientists have found a biological screw in a type of beetle called a weevil. Obliquely described as having “rotational movement combined with a single-axis translation,” the new screw-and-nut assembly was first seen in a weevil from New Guinea, says entomologist Alexander Riedel.

The discovery of the first biological screw-and-nut assembly emerged from an exploration of the weevil’s characteristic defense mechanism, says Riedel, an entomologist and curator who specializes in weevil classification at the State Museum of Natural History in Karlsruhe, Germany.

Two things weevils have in common are small size – the Trigonopterus oblongus under study was about 4 millimeters long – and legs that fold under the body. “We wanted to look at their particular defense mechanism,” says Riedel, “to know how it works.”

 A tiny screw with small thorns along center ridge

Using a microscopic counterpart to CT scanning, German researchers snapped electron micrographs of the weevil’s trochanter (“screw”) and (ROLLOVER) coxa (“nut”).”
Image © Science/AAAS

It’s all in the scan, man!

Given the small size, the scientists relied on a kind of micro CT scan driven by X-rays from a synchrotron, “We realized there is a very nice screw joint,” Riedel says, “We’ve had this information for some time, but while talking with a herpetologist colleague, we realized there is no other case in the whole animal kingdom, in all of biology, with a similar screw joint.”

The nut-and-screw are located at one of three major joints in the beetle’s leg; when the leg is retracted, the screw tightens in the nut, which remains stationary, Riedel says. Overall, the screw and nut would be able to turn 345 ° although the leg itself does not move that much.

ENLARGE

Shiny brown beetle with six hairy legs, plump, ovular torso, and two antennae

Image © Science/AAAS
The weevil Trigonopterus oblongus lives on the inland of New Guinea in the western Pacific.
ENLARGE

Rusty screw and nut in weathered fence post, fence continues along barren dirt, blurs into background

Photo: selva
The screw is an old and versatile “simple machines” (others include the lever, pulley, wheel and inclined plane). Now we learn that nature made the first screws!

A (good) turn of the screw!

“The weevils, or snout beetles, have been known from ancient times,” says Riedel. “There are grain weevils and lots of other species, including the boll weevil [a cotton pest]. Many other species are not pests … and so are of no particular interest to humans, which is why nobody knows much about them.”

A new paper announces the discovery of the first biological screw – in the leg of a weevil

Why does every weevil species that that Riedel examined have such a mechanism? Weevils, which spend a lot of time climbing on vegetation, apparently evolved from beetles that usually walk on a flat surface or underneath bark, Riedel says. “If a weevil is sitting on the edge of a leaf and wants to walk on a small twig, it’s essential that it can grip under its body, and this motion goes very nicely with this screw joint. A ground [walking] beetle would have great difficulty walking in similar conditions.”

The screw joint now joins the hinge, ball-and-socket and saddle joint as fundamental technologies invented by evolution, Riedel says. Historians of technology have long wondered about the origin of the incredibly useful screw, and it turns out that screws and nuts were in their flour bins all along – but only visible to those who happened to have a handy synchrotron!

– David Tenenbaum

A Biological Screw in a Beetle’s Leg, T. van de Kamp et al, Science, 1 July 2011.
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Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; Jenny Seifert, project assistant; David J. Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

Bibliography

  1. Biomimicry.
  2. Types of joints.
  3. Interactive joints.
  4. Weevils of Papua New Guinea.
  5. History of American nut and bolt industry.