ballet recital

Watch: Here’s how spring-loaded beetle larvae launch themselves into the air

Can’t beat that vertical leap.

Adrian Smith

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When you think of jumping bugs, grasshoppers, fleas, or crickets might come to mind.

Takahiro Yoshida/PLOS One

But some beetle larvae also have the ability to launch themselves into the air — a behavior scientists had no clue about till now.

Meet Laemopholoeus biguttatus — a species of lined flat bark beetle.

It’s widespread throughout Central and North America. But its larval leaping skills are a discovery new to science. The eagle-eyed researchers who caught them mid the air published their findings Wednesday in the journal PLOS One.

Matt Bertone/PLOS One

Matt Bertone/PLOS One

The discovery happened somewhat by chance.

Study co-author Matt Bertone noticed the larvae leaping around because he was trying to photograph bugs collected near his lab. They did not sit nicely for the camera.

Bertone, who works with Adrian Smith at North Carolina State University’s Evolutionary Biology & Behavior Research Lab, found the larvae on campus hidden beneath the bark of a dying tree.

Matt Bertone/PLOS One

“There’s a stereotypical idea that discovery involves [going] to a far-off, ‘unexplored’ place to document the unknown. The reality is that most of our living world, all around us, is unexplored and under-described.”

Adrian Smith tells Inverse.

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Takahiro Yoshida/PLOS One

Smith, Bertone, and colleagues took photos and videos of the balletic bugs to reveal how they turn their bodies into spring-loaded launch devices.

Here are the larvae leaps in action:

Takahiro Yoshida/PLOS One

Two views of the larvae lifting off show how it uses claws on its legs to grip the ground and garner the energy to launch itself upward.

Adrian Smith

The insects curl up into a ball in the air and eventually tumble back down to Earth unharmed.

Adrian Smith

There’s a chance this behavior could be widespread among other beetle species.

Bertone et al/PLOS One

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In 2021, Smith posted a video of the jumping larvae to YouTube, and Tokyo-based researcher Takahiro Yoshida got in touch. Yoshida had also seen larvae from a beetle species called Placonotus testaceus leaping around, too.

Yoshida helped co-author the recent PLOS One report, in which P. testaceus gets a mention.

Bertone et al/PLOS One

Bertone et al/PLOS One

Researchers don’t yet understand why the larvae jump. But it could have something to do with their habitat.

“With these beetle larvae, they have legs and can walk and run, but their jump is the quickest and most efficient way to move relatively great distances.”

Smith tells Inverse.

Bertone et al/PLOS One

The bugs tend to live in “unstable” conditions — like the bark of dead and dying trees.

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Adrian Smith

In such unstable conditions, the larvae need to move fast to distance themselves from predators.

Jumping is the best method to get out of harm’s way.

Smith hopes to continue studying the beetles, but they’re hard to spot.

“Though the species is widespread,” he explains, “you have to be lucky enough to find a tree in the right state of deadness and populated by the beetles.”

Matt Bertone/PLOS One

“Right now further work for us depends on another serendipitous encounter.”

Smith tells Inverse.

Adrian Smith