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This beetle larvae's flips are ready for the Olympics


OK. Get ready, world. There's a new move in gymnastics unlike any that's come before.

JESSICA O'BEIRNE: The thing that's amazing about this jump is taking off from a pushup position. It just is - like, basically goes from playing dead to launching itself like Simone Biles.


The athlete in question is not a traditional competitor per se. It's the larva of a bark beetle. Jessica O'Beirne, host of "GymCastic," the gymnastics podcast, agreed to give it a score.

O'BEIRNE: This larva is going to get a little bit of deduction for rotating off-center in the twists and also for just falling over when it lands. But I would probably give it, like, a nine, a 9.1. Also, its difficulty score is going to be huge. I mean, it's going to rival Simone's Yurchenko double pike vault in the difficulty area, so it's doing really well.

KELLY: In case you're wondering, these larvae are tiny, about a quarter of an inch long. They live in dead or dying trees. So when entomologist Matt Bertone of North Carolina State University saw a rotting oak on campus, he knew just what to do.

MATT BERTONE: So I started going up there and just kind of taking the bark off, collecting all the insects that were there.

ADRIAN SMITH: Matt's the type of entomologist who - any dead tree that's still standing that has kind of a weird fungus in the bark, like - he's all over it.

CHANG: That's Bertone's colleague Adrian Smith of NC State and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. The two said they were not expecting acrobatics, but as Bertone took a closer look...

BERTONE: I noticed they would crawl for a distance and then would hop. And it was really strange, and I didn't know if I was seeing things or not.

SMITH: Next thing he did was to call me up and say, hey. You want to film something weird? - because he knows that my answer is always going to be yes.

KELLY: The two used high-speed video to capture this spectacular somersaulting jump. The larva has little to no muscles, so it cannot jump like humans. Instead, it grips the ground with its legs and arches the middle of its body into the air. That builds up energy.

SMITH: It's kind of like a mousetrap, right? You build it by pulling back the swinging arm and loading your energy into the spring. And then you set up the latch that, when it's triggered, releases all that stored energy.

CHANG: When the larva lets go, all that stored energy sends it spinning into the air with takeoff velocities of up to two miles per hour.

BERTONE: And they kind of do a little somersault and then land on the ground and start walking again.

CHANG: The longest jumps were just shy of an inch in length. The scientists describe the previously unrecorded move in the journal PLOS One.

KELLY: OK, real question here. Why do the larvae do this other than - I don't know - style? One idea is they jump to evade predators. It's faster, takes less energy than crawling.

CHANG: Jessica O'Beirne, though, says the larva still needs to work on sticking the landing, of course.

O'BEIRNE: It's for sure making the podium, although it might be like it's getting to finals and everyone's super-impressed and then it just rolls off the ground into the judges. And that's not going to help it.

CHANG: So next time you see a dead tree, take a peek under the bark, and maybe you can be the judge.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVE BRUBECK'S "EVERYBODY'S JUMPIN'") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Megan Lim
[Copyright 2024 NPR]