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Gut Movements In Caterpillars Studied
July 28, 2010

Weird movements in the abdomens of freely crawling caterpillars are making headlines in the fields of engineering and biology, says Jake Socha, Virginia Tech assistant professor of engineering science and mechanics.

Jake Socha, Virginia Tech assistant professor of engineering science and mechanics, works in his laboratory. Some of his recent research, done in collaboration with biologists at Tufts University, is on the movements of caterpillars, and the work has implications in the field of robotics.

The interdisciplinary research team, including Prof. Socha; lead author Michael Simon of Tufts University’s Department of Biology; and senior author Barry Trimmer, professor of biology at Tufts in whose laboratory the research was done, said they used a type of powerful X-ray imaging to discover internal soft-tissue movements that were massively out of sync with the external body movements. The need for X-rays was because large caterpillars are entirely opaque.

They then verified these findings using transmission-light microscopy to see the internal soft-tissue movements of smaller, translucent caterpillars as they slowly inched their way along a glass microscope slide. As the dissection microscope magnified the images, the researchers recorded them to a video camera, and then captured them on a computer.

The novelty is that the caterpillars center of mass moves forward while the middle “legs” are anchored to the substrate. The internal gut movements are locally decoupled from visible translations of the body. “This type of two-body mechanical system has never been seen before, and is probably unique to soft, squishy animals,” Prof. Socha explained.

This movement meant the abdomen typically advanced an entire step forward before the body wall caught up. The researchers described it as “a unique phenomenon of gut sliding.”

Their findings are already finding their way into designing maneuverable and orientation-independent soft material robots. The next step for these “softbots” includes a diverse array of potential uses, such as shape-changing robots capable of engaging in search-and-rescue operations, space applications for which a “gravity-agnostic” crawler would be highly valued, and medical applications in which a biocompatible, soft robot would reduce incidental tissue damage and discomfort.

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