Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

These Beetles Waterski, Scientists Say

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

These Beetles Waterski, Scientists Say

Article excerpt

If you watch a waterlily leaf beetle hanging out on the surface of a pond, you might see it seemingly disappear and then reappear somewhere else. That may not seem all that strange for a flying insect, but a mysterious line of ripples hints otherwise.

The little beetle isn't flying from place to place as you might think. It's actually moving as if waterskiing, flying straight over the pond with its feet still touching the surface of the water.

Curious about how the waterlily beetles do it, scientists used high speed video cameras to take a closer look. They describe their findings in a new paper published in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

"It blows your mind away when you look at these things," Manu Prakash, who runs the lab at Stanford University that conducted this study, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview.

How do they do it?

Before a waterlily beetle takes off, it prepares its body. The insect lifts its middle pair of legs off the water to limit drag and tilts its body up, so its chest is lifted. Then, with its front and back legs touching the water, the beetle flaps its wings to thrust its body across the surface of the water.

"This behavior is fascinating," Adrian Thomas, who studies the biomechanics of animal flight at the University of Oxford but was not part of this study, tells the Monitor in a phone interview.

Someone might expect that such a mode of transportation takes too much effort, says Sanjay Sane, who also studies insect flight at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in India, but was also not part of this study. And it's therefore puzzling as to why the beetles' waterskiing flight evolved, Dr. Sane writes in an email to the Monitor.

Perhaps the beetles are taking advantage of surface tension to support their body weight, the new study suggests. …

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