Insects covered in tough stuff

Locust exoskeleton could inspire new, fracture-resistant materials

New findings about the hard exterior of the desert locust put scientists a step closer to engineering new strong materials. Cuticle, the material making up the exoskeleton of Schistocerca gregaria, has a toughness that is comparable to natural composites such as bone, researchers at Trinity College Dublin report.

The exoskeleton of a locust, as seen under a scanning electron microscope, reveals an intentional cut (left of arrow) that propagated as a crack (right of arrow) when bent. J.H. Dirks and D. Taylor/Journal of Experimental Biology 2012

The lower part of a locust’s leg, which helps the insect push off the ground, consists of a hollow cuticle tube. By mechanically bending lower leg segments that had been notched, researchers Jan-Henning Dirks and David Taylor measured how resistant to further cracking damaged insect legs were, a property known as fracture toughness. 

The locust legs’ toughness was comparable to that of other materials including wood and nacre, the scientists report online April 12 in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

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