Imagine if things like satellite antennas, umbrellas or even tiny medical instruments could fold down very small when not in use, but then unfurl into a strong and rigid structure when needed. Well, that's just what ladybug wings do. In order to find out how they do so, scientists from the University of Tokyo recently replaced a ladybug's real wing cover with a fake one that's transparent.

The insect's wing covers are actually a type of forewing, known as the elytra. The hindwings, which are used for flight, are kept tucked up underneath the elytra when the ladybug isn't flying.

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Led by assistant professor Kazuya Saito, the Tokyo researchers wanted to observe the folding mechanism of the hindwings, with an eye towards applying it to human technology. Unfortunately, however, much of the folding action takes place beneath the opaque elytra, so it can't be seen … at least, not usually.

It order to get around that limitation, the scientists removed one elytra from a ladybug, made a cast of it, then reproduced it in transparent ultraviolet-light-cured resin – the material is also used in fingernail art. That artificial elytra was then glued back onto the insect, in place of the real one that had been removed.

Using high-speed cameras, the team was subsequently able to observe that "ladybugs skillfully use the edge and lower surface of the elytron, whose curvature fits the characteristic curve shape of hindwing veins, to fold the wings along crease lines, together with abdominal lifting movements resulting in the rubbing and pulling of the hindwings into their dorsal storage space."

A paper on the research was recently published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Source: University of Tokyo