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How bombardier beetles play defense with scalding spray

X-ray imaging allowed scientists to map the bombing beetle's defense mechanism in great detail.

By Brooks Hays
How bombardier beetles play defense with scalding spray
Bombardier beetle (Brachinus alternans). Photo by johannviloria/Shutterstock

BOSTON, April 30 (UPI) -- In the animal kingdom, expelling a foul substance from one's rear end is a tried and true defensive mechanism. But each species makes the technique its own, and the bombardier beetle is not any different.

To thwart attackers, the ubiquitous black beetle launches a jet of scalding, irritating liquid. The technique is highly effective. But most impressive is that the beetle blasts out such a piping hot and corrosive spray without inflicting physical harm on itself. Until now, the process had scientists stumped.

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New research out of MIT offers a detailed look at the the beetle's weaponry and its deployment against intruders and would-be aggressors.

The liquid spray used by bombardier beetles is called benzoquinone, but the spray isn't made until it's needed. Two chemical precursors are mixed in a protective well at the end of the abdomen. It's not until the two chemicals are mixed that benzoquinone and its irritating qualities form.

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The synthesis process gives off a lot of energy, heating the benzoquinone close to its boiling point. The heat creates pressure that helps expel the liquid out the back end.

X-ray imaging allowed scientists to map this process in great detail.

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"For decades, the complex mechanism of how the bombardier beetle achieves spray pulsation as a chemical defense has not been understood, because only external observations were used previously," study leader Christine Ortiz, a professor of science materials and engineering at MIT, said in a press release.

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The process operates almost like an assembly line of chambers and valves -- chemicals mixed, pressure builds, chemical released in jet-like spray through valve, relax and repeat.

Researchers say the regimented and well-protected process could have implications in propulsion system design, as well as in designing blast-protection systems.

The study was published in the journal Science.

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