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Meniscus-climbing insects

Abstract

Water-walking insects and spiders rely on surface tension for static weight support1,2 and use a variety of means to propel themselves along the surface3,4,5,6,7,8. To pass from the water surface to land, they must contend with the slippery slopes of the menisci that border the water's edge. The ability to climb menisci is a skill exploited by water-walking insects as they seek land in order to lay eggs or avoid predators4; moreover, it was a necessary adaptation for their ancestors as they evolved from terrestrials to live exclusively on the water surface3. Many millimetre-scale water-walking insects are unable to climb menisci using their traditional means of propulsion2,3,9. Through a combined experimental and theoretical study, here we investigate the meniscus-climbing technique that such insects use. By assuming a fixed body posture, they deform the water surface in order to generate capillary forces10,11,12,13: they thus propel themselves laterally without moving their appendages. We develop a theoretical model for this novel mode of propulsion and use it to rationalize the climbers' characteristic body postures and predict climbing trajectories consistent with those reported here and elsewhere3.

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Figure 1: Meniscus climbing by the water treader Mesovelia.
Figure 3: Observed evolution of insect speed during the ascent of menisci.
Figure 2: Meniscus climbing by the larva of the waterlily leaf beetle.

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Acknowledgements

We thank T. Kreider for his early contributions, B. Chan for his assistance with the illustrations, L. Mendel for photographing Fig. 1a and MIT's Edgerton Center for access to their high-speed video equipment. We gratefully acknowledge the financial support of the NSF.

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Correspondence to John W. M. Bush.

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Reprints and permissions information is available at npg.nature.com/reprintsandpermissions. The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Video S1

Many water-walking insects are incapable of climbing menisci using their traditional means of propulsion. Here we see an infant water strider trying in vain to row up a meniscus. Video played at 1/20 real time. Body length, 1 mm. (MOV 9879 kb)

Supplementary Video S2

Here we see Mesovelia attempting to climb a meniscus from right to left. In its first attempt, it tries in vain to scamper up using its traditional running gait. In its second attempt, it locks itself into a fixed posture, pulling up with its front and rear appendages, and thus glides up the meniscus, seemingly effortlessly. Video played at 1/20 real time. Body length, 2 mm. (MOV 10108 kb)

Supplementary Video S3

We see here Mesovelia climbing a meniscus from right to left. The surface deflections are indicated by the shadows cast beneath the insect. Where it pulls up (with its front and rear appendages), the surface deflection focuses light into bright spots; where it pushes down (with its middle legs), light is diffused, resulting in dark shadows. Video played at 1/20 real time. Body length, 2 mm. (MOV 9090 kb)

Supplementary Video S4

We see here the meniscus-climbing technique of the beetle larva, a terrestrial creature not suited to walking on water. As it is circumscribed by a contact line, it can manipulate the free surface by arching its back. In so doing, it generates a torque that twists and aligns it perpendicular to the meniscus, and a force that subsequently drives it up the meniscus. Videos played in real time. Body length, 6 mm. (MOV 7674 kb)

Supplementary Video S5

We see here the meniscus-climbing technique of the beetle larva, a terrestrial creature not suited to walking on water. As it is circumscribed by a contact line, it can manipulate the free surface by arching its back. In so doing, it generates a torque that twists and aligns it perpendicular to the meniscus, and a force that subsequently drives it up the meniscus. Videos played in real time. Body length, 6 mm. (MOV 3424 kb)

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Hu, D., Bush, J. Meniscus-climbing insects. Nature 437, 733–736 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature03995

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