Cockroaches: disgusting to most people, fascinating to scientists—at least those interested in the creature’s durability.
For a new study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, University of California, Berkeley researchers set out to learn exactly what allows cockroaches to navigate cracks and crevices that are a fraction of their height. Integrative biologist Robert Full and Ph.D student Kaushik Jayaram filmed roaches entering tight spaces and observed what happened to the insects when various weights up to a 100 grams were placed on their bodies, Science reports.
The answer lies in cockroaches’ exoskeletons, which are made up of a series of overlapping plates—connected by a stretchy membrane—that are firm enough to offer protection yet flexible enough to compress and shift energy to its legs. Special spines help cockroaches maintain traction even when it splays it legs to squeeze by.
In the study, these maneuvers helped cockroaches withstand compression forces of about 300 times their body weight when crawling through cracks; in other instances, they withstood 900 times their body weight.
Researchers’ interest in cockroaches’ toughness has to do with more than just understanding their reputation for survival, however. Their ability to withstand great force is something scientists hope to recreate with robots. “Cockroach exoskeletons provided inspiration for a soft, legged search-and-rescue robot that may penetrate rubble generated by tornados, earthquakes, or explosions,” the authors write.