Study of cater­pil­lars shows how creepy-crawlies could help shape ro­bots

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - LIFE -

A young aca­demic won a ma­jor award from the pres­ti­gious Zoo­log­i­cal So­ci­ety of Lon­don re­cently for his de­vo­tion to study­ing the lives of “creepy crawlies”.

Si­mon Chen re­searches how cater­pil­lars man­age to hold on to their food plants with­out fall­ing off, and his find­ings could even have im­pli­ca­tions for fu­ture ro­botic tech­nol­ogy.

The ZSL sci­en­tific prize that Chen won is an award es­tab­lished in 1837 to rec­og­nize out­stand­ing con­tri­bu­tions to zoo­log­i­cal re­search and con­ser­va­tion by rec­og­niz­ing some of the bright­est minds in con­ser­va­tion science.

Chen, whose mother is orig­i­nally from China, has been in­ter­ested in na­ture gen­er­ally and in in­sects specif­i­cally since his child­hood in Ger­many where he was brought up.

“But I never imag­ined I would do lab-based cater­pil­lar re­search,” he said.

His in­ter­est grew after he won a young sci­en­tists com­pe­ti­tion in Ger­many through col­lect­ing and iden­ti­fy­ing dif­fer­ent species of cater­pil­lars.

That even­tu­ally led to his aca­demic in­ter­est in cater­pil­lars and moths, which in turn resulted in an in­vi­ta­tion to par­tic­i­pate in a BEF China project as a mem­ber of a team from Ger­many’s Univer­sity of Lunen­burg. The BEF is a joint project in­volv­ing uni­ver­si­ties in China, Ger­many and Switzer­land, to study bio­di­ver­sity and ecosys­tems.

Later Chen met his cur­rent su­per­vi­sor Wal­ter Fed­erle from the Depart­ment of Zo­ol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Cam­bridge, where he stud­ies how cater­pil­lars use their legs.

Chen ex­plained his re­search find­ings re­gard dif­fer­ent strate­gies for cater­pil­lars to at­tach to sur­faces be­tween the two species. “The gar­den tiger moth uses its very ad­vanced pro­legs, which are ad­di­tional legs on the ab­domen, to di­rectly at­tach to flat, edged, or rod cylin­der sur­faces. This is un­like for most in­sects which only have legs on the tho­rax.”

How­ever, “The African bush brown but­ter­fly has sim­pler legs that do not grip flat sur­faces and es­pe­cially flat smooth or fine rough sur­faces well. In­stead, they cover the sur­face in silk and then hold on to the silk threads. This cater­pil­lar can even avoid wast­ing silk by ad­just­ing how much silk it pro­duces, as well as the strength of the thread it pro­duces de­pend­ing on the rough­ness or an­gle of the sur­face,” Chen in­tro­duced.

As well as paving the way for fu­ture pest con­trol among crops, Chen’s work could help in the de­vel­op­ment of fu­ture ro­bots.

“Cater­pil­lar at­tach­ment is par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing be­cause cater­pil­lars are one of the few legged soft­bod­ied or­gan­isms and al­low us to un­der­stand how this type of or­gan­ism moves, po­ten­tially in­spir­ing soft ro­bot­ics ap­pli­ca­tions,” the young re­searcher said.

Chen noted that cater­pil­lars are im­por­tant her­bi­vores with ma­jor ef­fects in ecosys­tem func­tion or some­times as pests.

“Un­der­stand­ing how they at­tach to sur­faces helps us to un­der­stand how they use their food plants, and how plants might de­fend them­selves, or how we might de­fend crop plants with­out us­ing pes­ti­cides,” he said.

This fall, Chen starts a PhD pro­gram at Cam­bridge to con­tinue his re­search into the amaz­ing world of cater­pil­lars.

“In the fu­ture, I would like to un­der­stand how cater­pil­lar pro­legs evolved,” he said.

Cater­pil­lars ... al­low us to un­der­stand how this type of or­gan­ism moves, po­ten­tially in­spir­ing soft ro­bot­ics ap­pli­ca­tions.” Si­mon Chen, re­searcher

is one of the great an­cient bat­tle­fields of China, lo­cated on the Diaoyu Moun­tain in Hechuan district, Chongqing.

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